Why chicken restaurants could rule the roost

This article first appeared on MCA online on June 10 2019

Opinion piece by Lauren Wellman, Shelley Sandzer.

Fried Chicken has maintained a significant presence in the UK grab and go market for as long as anyone can remember.  But with the tidal wave of new, higher-quality and well-branded ‘chicken shops’, are we seeing an overhaul of Britain’s popular poultry? 

Chicken operators are a staple of the fast food scene, but with their prominent role in the high street takeaway market, they have long carried an arguably low profile, due to horror stories of poor hygiene and a reputation as the destination for post-midnight, alcohol-induced hangouts.  But this is changing. There has been a real shift in attitude towards chicken outlets as standalone dining destinations.  For years, significant investment and attention was given to burgers and pizzas in the casual dining industry (and rightly so!), but chicken is now in the spotlight. 

There are some fundamental virtues that make chicken a smart choice for emerging eateries, particularly financial factors.  Raising chickens is much less expensive than other meat so there is potential for a higher profit margin.  Furthermore, in terms of restaurant operation requirements, smaller units are generally required with less extensive extraction than a burger operator. 

But why are new chicken operators swooping into the UK market with such force?

The US attitude towards fried chicken has certainly had a heavy influence; across the pond fried chicken has been glamorised even more so recently with the aid of popular music culture. For example, chicken eatery Wingstop has an association with DJ Rick Ross, the brand even recruited agency Brinkworth — known for their work with Supreme, Stussy and Drake’s OVO — to design the retail space.

The investment into branding yields traction with a younger target audience, and attractive signage and interior design meets the needs of a generation centred around social media.  Similarly, more and more younger consumers are adhering to a flexitarian diet, and chicken is often the preferred choice on the meat side of their diet. 

The younger generation are also vast casual-dining consumers, a great example of a new brand with a strong casual offer is Jefferies, the solely chicken spin-off from parent burger brand, Patty & Bun.  Jefferies launched this spring at street food and music venue, The Prince, a west London hotspot that encompasses stylish décor, chic branding, and casual dining for a young audience.  Jefferies’ residency at The Prince allows the concept to be road tested and for consumers to enjoy high-quality food without having to more formally dine-out at a restaurant. 

This increase in chicken-specific outlets is also being realised within shopping centres. Stalwarts KFC and Nando’s have traditionally ruled the roost, but notable is the increase in new, independent chicken brands taking smaller and arguably lower risk units. 

Take Mother Cluckers’ recent signing as part of the upcoming Market Halls venture at Lakeside shopping centre, for instance, where the brand has minimal fit-out costs and shares resources under Market Hall’s wing.  Another great example is Absurd Bird, who trade in Trinity Kitchen in Leeds.  The Trinity Kitchen concept involves giving street-food brands the opportunity to serve their dishes in a rotation of vendors, alongside a selection of permanent operators, of which, Absurd Bird is one.

We can see this progression in the market already with fried chicken restaurant, Coqfighter, who recently signed for their first full-service restaurant in Soho.  The brand started out trading in a residency in Hackney, and then opened further sites in Boxpark and The Prince. Their evolution into a full-service restaurant reflects the demand for high-quality chicken restaurants, whether it be fast-casual or dine-in style eateries.  Similarly, street-food brand, Thunderbird Fried Chicken, began life with stalls in Shoreditch’s Dinerama and Canary Wharf’s Giant Robot, but has recently opened a standalone site at London’s ICON Outlet at The O2.  

 If it had ever looked like KFC and Nando’s were being challenged for the top spot, this may be the time.  As chicken leaders in the shopping centre sphere, they have been untouchable.  But with the Boparan Restaurant Group’s recent move to re-brand a number of their Ed’s Easy Diner to their Slim Chickens concept, along with the rise in brand-new chicken outlets, the market is clearly on the up. 

So, could it reach saturation point as one could argue has happened with burgers?  What lies ahead for the chicken-operator market is perhaps too early to say, but it is evident there has been movement in the attitude towards this type of casual dining.  Chicken is one to watch, but I think there is definitely a gap in the market for a new favourite to sit alongside KFC and Nando’s on their chicken-shop thrones.