While high quality proteins such as all-natural chicken often command a slightly higher food cost than that of non-premium items, operators maintain that menuing premium products nevertheless can help drive sales. Many restaurant-goers are willing to pay a higher price for a product if they perceive the food quality to be better than that of commodity versions. And even when consumers may be a little resistant to paying more, creative restaurateurs say they can find ways to make the price points accessible for premium menu selections.
“From what I’ve experienced, consumers are willing to pay more for honesty, traceability of ingredients, better flavor and higher quality ingredients — especially concerning proteins,” says Brandon Frohne, director of culinary at Holler & Dash — the fast casual biscuit house concept owned by Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in Lebanon, Tenn. “Many of today’s consumers value the healthfulness of their food, and they understand that price is a factor in that equation.”
Holler & Dash offers a biscuit-centric menu with fried chicken, hot chicken and other proteins. “One of our core beliefs at Holler & Dash is in the goodness of real food,” Frohne says. “Our main objective is to let our guests taste the best quality and flavor we can put on a plate — even if that means we monitor our protein sizes in order to provide offerings at a menu price that allows consumers to savor our flavors at a price that is still accessible to them in the fast casual space.”
At the 100-unit Saladworks, chicken is the bestselling ingredient, says Patrick Sugrue, president and chief executive. The Conshohocken, Pa.-based fresh-tossed salad concept uses all-natural chicken. In order to keep prices at a level that is appealing to consumers, Saladworks looked at the cost of other ingredients. “We negotiated harder and really scrutinized the rest of the menu to find a way to take costs out without impacting food quality,” he says.
Saladworks also aims to mitigate higher prices by improving the guests’ overall dining experience. Sugrue says that not only do the various ingredients work together to make the custom salads more flavorful, but other factors such as service and ambiance affect consumers’ attitude about the food as well. For example, the chain recently underwent a refresh that included remodeling the restaurants. “We didn’t change anything about the food, but the feedback was that our food never tasted so good,” he says. “That speaks to the interrelationship of food quality, ambiance and service.”
Other operators say they keep prices down for all-natural chicken by using some processes that seem counterintuitive. “Ways that we're looking at to offset the price include adding more labor to prep more in-house from scratch,” says Bill Hart, co-founder of Bubbakoo's Burritos, with nine locations in New Jersey. “We already shred our own cheese, cook our beans from raw, hand trim and clean our chicken and steak and prep our vegetables daily. We're looking into a lot more which we can do in house so that we can do the right thing by our guests.”
Hart says adding minimal hours a day to prep from scratch — rather than buying pre-prepped or packaged goods — helps lower the rest of the food cost and it provides a better product. “Our guests notice this freshness and innovation in our product. This keeps them coming back; helps the margins and in turn helps the price,” he says.
It is also a smart tactic to make the menuing of premium products part of the concept's overall identity. At Cowboy Chicken, a fast casual chain specializing in real wood fire rotisserie chicken, all-natural chicken is part of the brand identity. “We know who we are, and we really want to serve the best quality chicken,” says Sean Kennedy, president of the 21-unit concept. “We feel like if you’re in the mood for chicken, we provide the best quality chicken.”
The check average is $11, Kennedy says, and consumers are willing to pay that because they see value in the all-natural chicken and the from-scratch preparations. “We are a premium fast casual brand, and we are still very accessible,” he says. “We offer great value and great healthy options.”
Amy Myrdal Miller, president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc., in Carmichael, Calif., says consumers respond very positively to the term “all-natural,” and operators should not hesitate to charge a premium for this.
“Operators should also consider other factors that create a premium offering,” she says. “Menu descriptors like ‘artisan’ are also powerful when it comes to higher perceived value. An operator using all-natural chicken for a sandwich should also consider the bun and toppings, something like ‘All-Natural Grilled Chicken Breast Sandwich on an Artisan Roll.’”
The better ingredient trend helps make consumers perceive value in all-natural chicken. “People are using food for health now more than ever,” says Tony Palombino, founder and chief executive of EAP Restaurant Concepts Inc., a multi-concept restaurant company that includes the four-location Joella’s Hot Chicken in Kentucky. “That kind of helps explain consumer interest in fresh natural products.”
Palombino says the per person check average for Joella’s Hot Chicken is $12.50, and customers have been willing to pay that since the first location opened in 2015. “Out of the gate there was such a demand for what we were producing, consumers said, ‘We want this and we’ll pay for it,’” he says. “Consumers are very well educated when it comes to food these days. People understand their food.”
Joella’s Hot Chicken serves all-natural chicken that is brined overnight, fried and then topped with a selection of sauces.
The messaging does indeed help, says Bruce Reinstein, president of supply chain consulting company Consolidated Concepts in Allston, Mass. “Restaurants would actually find cost benefits by offering all-natural chicken as long as they communicate their use of this chicken to their guests through effective marketing,” Reinstein says.” This would communicate a message of high quality menu items to customers for a price they would be willing to pay.”