KANSAS CITY, MO. - Since coronavirus (COVID-19) rattled the country, consumers have been turning to comfort foods like fried chicken, leaving plenty of room for grocers to play up their fried chicken offerings with a few adjustments to fit into the post-COVID-19 world.

Before the pandemic, the most popular ways grocers offered fried chicken meals was through self-serve hot bars and made-to-order counters, but that’s changing for the interim, said Brian Harding, key account manager for Holts Summit, Mo.-based PFSbrands, the parent company of Champ’s Chicken.

“People are kind of afraid to buy stuff if it’s not in a sealed container,” he said. “We had a lot of stores that were self-serve but those have all temporarily shut down, and we’re seeing the biggest take off in grab-and-go.”

In fact, PFSbrands recently released Red Letter Signature Sides such as mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, homestyle green beans and sweet corn that grocers can offer with pre-packaged fried or rotisserie chicken for a full meal. The sides come sealed in inner pouches, so the products never come in contact with air from the time they’re manufactured to the time the customer opens the pouch at home.

The company also offers three different sizes of warmers ideal for grab-and-go with the following features:

  • Suitable for individually packed and portioned food
  • Food safety controlled by patented airflow technology
  • 99.9% of pathogens killed within minutes at 75⁰C
  • Food-to-Go for snacking and home meal replacement
  • No doors, no barriers to touch for the customer

Packaging solutions 

Reinforcing takeout and delivery strategies amid COVID-19 isn’t only important for restaurants, it’s vital for grocery prepared foods programs like fried chicken, too. But greasy, crisp, fried foods like fried chicken provide an extra packaging challenge. In order for grocers to market fried chicken in a grab-and-go context, packaging that keeps meals like an eight-piece prepared package of fried chicken fresh, crisp and hot is going to be key.

Ballwin, Mo.-based Anchor Packaging recognizes that packaging for hot to-go foods should have the following features:

  • Leak-resistant, with tight closure to avoid messy spills en route
  • Special features to keep fried foods, both hot and crisp
  • Re-closable bases and lids made with dishwasher-safe, reusable materials
  • The ability to withstand temperatures to 230 degrees Fahrenheit under a heat lamp or in the microwave
  • Capable of consumer reuse and recycled after multiple uses

Foam and paper packaging rarely meets those critical characteristics, so the packaging company recommends using rigid, polypropylene plastic containers, with hinged or separate bases and lids that in the least provide performance and protection needed to deliver taste profiles comparable to what a customer might enjoy if they would sit down and eat the meal straight after ordering it from the deli counter.

Fried hot foods like fried chicken need packaging that meets those aspects and beyond. That’s why Anchor introduced its line of Crisp Food Technologies containers designed to keep food hot and crispy.

“The line of Crisp Food Technologies containers were developed to keep fried chicken hot and crisp in supermarket displays for up to four hours,” said Marilyn Stapleton, director of marketing for Anchor. “Crisp Food Technologies, combined with Nature’s Best Roasters, are perfect for hot-to-go deli offerings for the store shopper or online orders for curbside pick-up and home delivery. Consumers may be more aware of the high-quality prepared foods available in the deli during the COVID-19 crisis, and merchandisers should take advantage of promoting their no-wait packaged hot meal solutions. Advertising hot meal options in grocery loyalty programs will remind consumers to continue to consider the store as a source for their ready-to-eat meals.”

Available in hinged and separate lid-base options, the crisp food containers maintain the taste of fried entrees and sides using a patented convection cross-flow design that relieves moisture and condensation while maintaining food temperature.

Earlier this year, Anchor added to the line with the launch of Fry Baby, a clear, hinged container specifically intended to hold fried chicken strips and other fried side items. The new packaging option is the lowest-priced container in the Crisp Food Technologies line and costs less than some paper containers. The aspect of clear packaging is also vital in merchandising the look of a fresh meal to consumers.

Branded programs

With the mission-driven shopping habits of post-COVID-19 consumers, it’s more important than ever to remind shoppers that fresh, ready-to-eat food like fried chicken is available to pick up and take home for an easy family meal. Branded friend chicken programs such as Genuine Broaster Chicken or Champ’s Chicken are especially beneficial when it comes to merchandising to customers.

Beloit, Wis.-based Broaster Company can partner with retailers to introduce its Genuine Broaster Fried Chicken trademark program. Under the program, grocers can brand their fried chicken with Broaster’s trademark if the retailer uses at least one of Broaster Company’s pressure fryers, uses the brand’s marinades, follows the brand’s cooking procedures and presents the brand appropriately.

Under the Broaster trademark, retailers can choose to use just Broaster’s signature chicken and offer customers their own sides or they can choose to go through Broaster for both chicken and sides. Retailers can also choose to customize their own program using their own selection of Broaster seasonings, marinades, equipment and sides, but under this option a retailer would have to use their own private label for the program.

Going through Broaster’s program gives retailers access to the company’s trademark branding. At minimum, retailers will be provided with the Broaster Chicken logo and graphic art that a grocer can feed into its existing programs. Or Broaster can work with retailers to provide menu boards. It’s incredibly important that the fried chicken products look good and have a clear variety of food combinations which will draw in consumers, said Greg West, Broaster’s senior vice president of marketing and food innovation.

“A lot of it’s about the presentation,” West said. “So, if mom or dad is looking for a meal solution and they have three screaming kids with them, they have the ability to see in the deli aisle that they can get 12 pieces of chicken, two sides and rolls for $19.99.”

Retailers also have the option of purchasing equipment from Broaster without participating in the chicken program. But if a retailer goes that route, they won’t have the option to use Broaster’s merchandising tools.

The same goes for PFSbrands. Retailers can purchase products from the company, but they can also choose to instead implement a fried chicken franchise program through the company called Champ’s Chicken. Under Champ’s Chicken grocers offer a menu of fried chicken entrees and sides that are the same across all of Champ’s Chicken locations. To ensure food items are prepared the same way, equipment must meet the specifications of the Champ Chicken franchise. Grocers are allowed to use their own equipment providing it meets specifications, or they can purchase equipment through PFS.

“The Champ’s program has more marketing funds centered toward it,” said Harding. “Retailers get on a website where customers can do a locator to find a Champ’s near them. Through the program retailers also get quarterly promotions on products with a marketing plan for the year, and sales calls with reps every four to six weeks.”

This story is from the July 2020 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. To view the full magazine, click here.