The fast-food chicken sandwich wars launched by the release of Popeye’s uber-popular sandwich has found its way to retail, said spokespersons from Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue.

One of the most recent rollouts on the fresh side is Perdue Fresh Cuts Fresh Chicken Breast Cutlets, which are pre-trimmed and recipe ready so consumers can recreate their favorite fried chicken recipes at home — including chicken sandwiches. Google Trends data showed that searches for “homemade spicy chicken sandwich” has increased by 350% in recent months.

“The cutlets are perfectly sized to fit on buns and to allow consistent cooking throughout the entire piece,” according to Perdue.

Tom Super, senior vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based National Chicken Council, is also tracking the fast-food chicken sandwich craze and the inroads it’s making into retail.

“Meat departments have discovered the chicken sandwich war is far from over and the soldiers will not return home anytime soon,” he said. “The more adroit meat departments are offering breast meat and thigh meat portions that are conveniently sized to fit on a bun, following the in-home cooking trend.”

Recipes and serving suggestions available online or in complimentary store-available magazines that educate consumers on how best to make a chicken sandwich can effectively promote the concept and boost sales.

Beyond the sandwich

Retail trends are often shaped by what’s on menus at restaurants, and in this case of chicken, that’s true beyond just the chicken sandwich craze, Perdue spokespersons said.

“We’ve also seen continued interest in fried chicken in general. The buttermilk fried chicken recipe on is our most-viewed recipe.”  

The pandemic has been challenging for the overall food sector and drove a considerable spike in demand for chicken in retail stores, especially compared to the rest of the fresh perimeter. Perdue saw increased demand, especially during the early months of the pandemic when there was a lot of uncertainty.

After that surge, Mintel data projects a slight decline in retail meat sales in 2021 and 2022 after the big boost of 2020, but sales are still expected to remain significantly above pre-pandemic levels, according to Perdue.

According to IRI data, consumers were less likely to actively seek new products during the pandemic because they wanted to reduce time in grocery stores. Perdue is confident that that will turn around soon, and that consumers will again seek out new products.

As vaccinated consumers begin to return with more confidence to brick-and-mortar grocery stores, they’re gravitating to the fresh meat department to see what they may have missed when they were ordering their poultry and red meat online, Super said.

“Despite some overall tightness in the supply of chicken, processors continue to prioritize providing a wide and adequate variety of chicken parts and products to meat departments,” Super said. “With the increase in the popularity of wings and breast tenders, companies are especially aware of trying to meet that stepped-up demand.”

At the same time, though, he added, the supply disruption for chicken has resulted in essentially all companies putting the rollout of new products on a much more measured pace. 

Spatchcocked, butterfly-cut gain ground

One trend in the retail chicken market that has flown largely under the radar is increased sales of spatchcocked or butterfly-cut chickens, which are typically a bit smaller than a whole-carcass bird, Super said.

With the backbone removed, cooking a spatchcocked or butterfly product, whether you’re frying or grilling, takes less time. And a flattened bird is easier to season or hand rub. Look for even stronger sales, Super predicted, as the summer grilling season heats up.

Also on tap for grilling season, he said: stronger kabob and other skewered-chicken sales.  

Another trend the National Chicken Council is tracking is growing interest in and availability of sous vide chicken products. Vacuum-packed and slow-cooked at a low temperature to better assure even cooking and sealed-in taste, sous vide also makes cleanup easier.

“We expect to see a greater variety of flavors and mixtures” of sous vide in coming months, Super said.

Another, more old-fashioned, method of cooking chicken is also seeing a resurgence, Super said. With greater appreciation of slow-cook methods of preparing chickens, consumers are rediscovering their crockpots.

“While it takes more cooking time to use a crockpot, the attention and effort for the cook is greatly lessened,” he said. “If people are continuing to work at home, this method seems like a natural fit. Supermarket meat departments may want to encourage this option for chicken by providing dedicated packages and recipes.”