For many chefs at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, working with poultry is similar to an artist facing a blank canvas: The fairly neutral object can be used to create something unique and appealing.
Even though deep-frying is incredibly popular in the limited-service space, there are other preparation methods that help proteins like chicken and turkey move beyond the commonplace and display a range of interesting flavors. Operators these days are not only grilling poultry—a method growing in demand due to its healthier, lower-fat halo—but they’re also roasting and barbecuing the birds, as well as exploring the age-old rotisserie method.
Chicken in particular is a very versatile meat, says David Adir, chief executive of sandwich chain The Carving Board. “It’s very mild and is complemented well by any number of sauces,” he says. “There’s just so much you can do with it.”
White chicken meat’s flavor in particular is “pretty neutral,” adds Heather Gardea, vice president of research and development at El Pollo Loco. Brines, marinades, and sauces can easily influence the flavor. Still, she says, “interest in dark meat has been growing.”
Menu mentions for poultry have been rising at limited-service restaurants, increasing 4 percent for chicken and 3 percent for turkey during a two-year period that ended in March, according to data from market research company Mintel. At the same time, a diverse range of cooking methods have been on the rise, says Mintel foodservice analyst Diana Kelter. Mintel Menu Insights finds that grilled poultry mentions are up 8 percent, while roasted jumped 17 percent during the same period.
The leading poultry prep method mentioned on menus is grilled, which is largely the result of operators pointing out when chicken is grilled as opposed to the more traditional method of frying.
“Grilled is appealing to that desire by many consumers for healthier options,” Kelter says. That meshes with other Mintel Menu Insights data that finds the leading menu dish featuring nonfried poultry is salad; meanwhile, antibiotic-free claims have doubled, and natural ingredient claims are up 33 percent.
Fast-casual restaurants often focus on vegetable-forward dishes, and chicken—grilled, roasted, or barbecued—is more of a premium add-on rather than part of the basic recipe, Kelter says. “It’s part of the overall customization trend,” she adds.
Chicken has proved to be a positive for both limited-service operators and guests, says Tom Super, vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council.
“Operators appreciate and benefit from chicken’s consistent value over the years, its adherence to quality and food safety, and its low veto factor, especially for nonfried versions,” he says. “Customers appreciate the wide range of tastes, value for their food dollar, and the adventure of finding a new innovative presentation of chicken.”
While chicken is by far the biggest poultry item in limited-service restaurants, turkey has been making gains—not just deli sliced for sandwiches, but also increasingly ground as a flavorful, texture-rich alternative to beef in burgers or chili, and to pork in sausage.
“We’re seeing more turkey burgers pop up on menus across the country, and some of the largest operators in the country are featuring turkey sausage and bacon,” says Carl Wittenburg, chairman of the National Turkey Federation. “One of the beauties is that turkey nutritionally carries a good health halo, whether white, dark, or ground.”
Turkey has been a sandwich shop favorite for years, because white meat is preferred by Americans, and the large breast segments are easy to slice. While chicken is another white meat, “we like to think our competitor is more on the red meat side,” Wittenburg says.
Most chicken or burger chains that offer fried chicken breast sandwiches have added grilled versions, using flattops, char-broilers, wood-fired grills, and various other methods. Burger eateries typically cook these the same way as their hamburgers.
Many companies that had these sandwiches for years have revamped their recipes, often using better chicken and marinating them with various herbs and spices to create juicier, tastier products augmented by various toppings, sauces, and buns or other carriers.
The Carving Board uses a breast fillet from antibiotic- and additive-free chickens that is marinated for 24 hours and grilled with oil, salt, and pepper. This becomes part of several sandwiches, including the Blue Ribbon—“Our version of chicken cordon bleu,” Adir says—and Buffalo Grilled Cheese, in which chicken is tossed in a spicy blue cheese sauce.
Turkey is also a key player at the four-unit, Los Angeles–based chain. Oven-roasted turkey is key in the Turkey Dinner sandwich—stuffing, grilled onions, turkey gravy, and dried cranberries on toasted sourdough bread. “It’s the way I like it after Thanksgiving,” Adir says, noting that it’s one of the brand’s best-selling sandwiches.
Ground white and dark meat is used for the Cali Turkey Burger with sliced avocado, grilled onions, and other toppings, as well as for The Carving Board’s turkey chili.
At Burgerim Gourmet Burgers, an Israeli chain known for its build-your-own mini-burgers, the grilled chicken sandwich is marinated for hours and topped with sautéed mushrooms, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and garlic aioli sauce.
Burgers are the brand’s “bread and butter,” says Juan Munoz, the Los Angeles–based head of U.S. operations, and Burgerim features 10 meat options, including white-meat chicken and dark- and white-meat turkey. While most restaurants season burgers with just salt and pepper, at Burgerim “it’s all about the spices” that the patties receive before being flame-grilled, Munoz says.
Guests usually order at least two of the small burgers to get different flavors. White cheese and jalapeños are popular toppings with the turkey burger, and cheddar and jalapeños are often chosen with the chicken version. One of Munoz’s favorites is the chicken burger with pineapple and jalapeños.
All-white meat from turkey raised by a family-farm cooperative is used for the 6-ounce patties in the Happy Pilgrim burgers at the 20-unit, Dallas-based Twisted Root Burger Co. The burger also has goat cheese, kale pesto, and mixed greens.
When the company started, the turkey patties were pre-made, but that soon changed, says Wayne Blackmore, master of multiunit operations. “Now we season the turkey with salt and pepper and patty it out” before the burgers are cooked on a clamshell grill, he says.
Twisted Root is known for selling burgers that use various types of meats, even exotic ones like ostrich and elk. Another is a poultry item, duck, which sells quickly in the periods it’s offered. “It’s got a nice rich flavor to it, not at all gamey,” Blackmore says.
Poultry is popping up in more creative applications than just sandwiches and burgers. Pasadena, California–based Dog Haus features the Free Bird, a dark-and-white meat turkey hot dog with bacon, avocado, tomatoes, and ranch dressing, and the Hot Chick, a chicken sausage stuffed with fontina cheese and topped with tomato, avocado, onions, sriracha, and ranch dressing.
Chicken has also made its way into many pizza places across the country. The success of Nashville Hot chicken led Donatos Pizza to create its own Hot Chicken Pizza, baked with spicy breast-meat chicken, pepper jack cheese, and jalapeños. It’s cut party-style and finished with a dill pickle on each piece and a ranch dressing drizzle.
“It’s a very surprising flavor,” says Tom Pendrey, chief operating officer of the Columbus, Ohio–based company. “People are not too sure of chicken with pickles, but those who have tried it love it.” The build also comes as a sub sandwich.
Donatos uses chicken in other pizzas, like the Spinach Chicken Mozzarella pie. It also sells baked, boneless chicken wings prepared to order with a proprietary dry rub or a sauce.
Other poultry cooking methods have a big impact on taste, too, as is the case at Hawaii’s self-described Chicken in a Barrel. The two-unit operation is based on an old style of barbecuing chicken, with charcoal and wood in an old oil drum. “My father-in-law learned to cook that way when he was living in the central California Sierras,” says owner and manager Brent Bierma. A door is cut in the barrel, as are holes to hold rods where chickens cook. Today, custom barrels that last longer are used.
Chicken in a Barrel employs charcoal for heat and kiawe, a Hawaiian wood “similar to mesquite,” for smoky flavor, he adds. A family recipe dry rub is applied to the chicken, which goes on hooks 2 feet over the coals, heating the barrel to 220–260 degrees. The chicken is served in quarter or half portions and shredded for hoagies, tacos, or burritos.
Various ethnic cooking styles have long made poultry the center of the menu. One of the longest-running has been El Pollo Loco, which features Mexican-style chicken that has a four-stage cooking process, including the use of an 18-foot flame grill.
“We start with fresh, whole birds that are butterflied,” says Gardea, the Irvine, California–based chain’s culinary expert. They are then infused with a citrus marinade in special tumblers, refrigerated for 24 hours, and cooked by specially trained grill masters who know when to baste and turn the chickens. “They are the highest-paid employees,” she says, noting the value of their expertise.
The chicken, which has a crackly, crispy, and amber-colored skin after grilling, is sold in single pieces or as multi-part meals. While the white meat is typically the most popular, “our Hispanic customers prefer dark meat,” Gardea says.
An Afro-Portuguese dish, peri-peri chicken, is the signature entrée at Nando’s PERi PERi. The name is an offshoot of the term piri piri, which is Swahili for “pepper pepper.” African bird’s eye chile is a key ingredient of the flame-grilled chicken’s marinade.
“Most fundamentally, the chile is grown in African soil, which gives it a special flavor,” says Nicola Davis, culinary manager for Nando’s, which began in South Africa and has about three dozen U.S. locations. “Just as wine grown in different regions has different tastes, so does this.”
Butterflied fresh chickens are marinated for 24 hours with the chilies, onion, garlic, lemon, and other ingredients before being flame grilled and basted in the customer’s choice of several sauces, ranging from mild to extra hot. There are several chicken breast sandwiches, and even one using only thigh meat.
“In the last couple years, thigh meat has become trendy,” Davis says. “It’s become more approachable to people.”
Rotisserie chicken is another popular cooking style and has been a mainstay at both large chains like Boston Market and small ones, such as Velvet Taco. It’s also used at Alpaca Peruvian Charcoal Chicken, which has five locations in North Carolina.
“We start with a house Peruvian marinade that’s a family secret,” says Ranbir Bakhshi, one of the family members that run the restaurants. The chicken will marinate for 24 hours before being put on spits for the rotisserie that uses all-natural lump wood charcoal for its heat. Cooking time is about two and a half hours.
“The chicken releases drippings that hit the coals and produce smoke, so you get the flavor of the marinade and the smoky charcoal,” Bakhshi says. “It’s different than grilling.”
This type of cooking is popular in Peru, where each polleria has its own house blend, just like a barbecue joint has in America. “They all have salt and pepper, and a lot have cumin and garlic,” Bakhshi says.