Rotisserie Chicken Is Springing Up Everywhere : Food: KFC, El Pollo Loco, Kenny Rogers Roasters and Boston are vying for a piece of the growing market in O.C.


No chicken in its right mind would cross Brookhurst Street here to get to the other side--not with Boston Chicken, Kenny Rogers Roasters, Kentucky Fried Chicken and El Pollo Loco all perched there and crowing about their menus.

The sudden proliferation of roasted chicken restaurants at Brookhurst and Garfield Avenue in Fountain Valley--the newest, a Boston Chicken outlet, opens on Monday--is indicative of a boom nationwide as competitors race for a share in one of the restaurant industry’s most rapidly growing segments.

“Rotisserie chicken is probably the hottest food category in restaurants and supermarkets,” said Steve Provost, a vice president at Kentucky Fried Chicken, which controls about half of the $7-billion market for fried chicken. The PepsiCo subsidiary recently spent more than $100 million to introduce its Rotisserie Gold line at 5,000 stores nationwide.


But the competition is strong. Kenny Rogers Roasters, which takes its name from the country singer, is run by John Y. Brown Jr., a businessman and former Kentucky governor who three decades ago turned Kentucky Fried Chicken into a nationwide chain. And Boston Chicken, which set a Wall Street record when its stock began trading in 1992, boasts a management team top-heavy with executives who helped Blockbuster climb to the top of the video rental market.

The high-stakes game of chicken also has a strong West Coast connection. Irvine-based El Pollo Loco holds a good part of the Southern California market. And Anaheim-based CKE Restaurants Inc., which owns the Carl’s Jr. hamburger chain, plans to open as many as 300 Boston Chicken franchise restaurants in Southern California.

Besides those, a host of other eateries also are clucking about their chicken dishes.

“It’s just a great, healthy alternative,” said Curtis Creek, marketing director at Polly’s Tasty Foods & Pies, a Santa Fe Springs-based chain that serves rotisserie-style chicken from a restaurant at Adams Avenue and Brookhurst Street in Huntington Beach. “The high heat defats the meat but keeps the juice, which gives you great taste.”

Great taste and the promise of less fat are an appealing combination. According to the National Restaurant Assn. in Washington, U.S. consumption per capita of chicken and turkey in 1990 for the first time matched those of beef.

Consumers still love finger-licking good fried chicken. But while restaurant orders for fried chicken grew at an annual rate of 2% from 1989 to 1993, orders for non-fried chicken grew at a whopping 13% rate.

Yet to be seen, KFC’s Provost said, is “whether it’s a fad or an enduring trend.”

The chains don’t pitch their chicken as health food. But they are responding to consumer demand by providing details about the nutritional makeup of their meals.


Boston Chicken offers easy-to-read charts that describe the nutritional value of its entrees. El Pollo Loco reports that one of its meals “contains 30% less fat and 20% less sodium than a comparable fried chicken meal.” And menu boards at Kenny Rogers Roasters note that several entrees meet the fat, cholesterol and sodium guidelines of an independent company that rates restaurant food.

Fad or not, roasted chicken is definitely in favor now. KFC expects first-year sales of Rotisserie Gold to reach $750 million.

Boston Chicken, which now has 340 restaurants in 23 states, hopes to have 525 by year’s end. The company, which reported $154 million in fiscal 1993 sales, hopes to open as many as 300 locations in Southern California through its franchise arrangement with the Carl’s Jr. chain.

“We’re excited because this is good, wholesome food--food that’s relatively easy to replicate at many locations,” said Kerry Coin, general manager of Anaheim-based CKE Restaurants’ Boston Pacific Inc. subsidiary. “And it’s almost the reverse of Carl’s (traffic flow) because we do most of our business at dinner, while Carl’s is heaviest at lunch.”

A few blocks away from Boston Chicken’s new restaurant is the first Orange County location for Kenny Rogers Roasters. The company, based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., plans to have 165 stores open in 31 states and five foreign markets by the end of this year, including locations in Corona, Northridge and Palm Desert. It is now readying stores in Santa Ana, Lakewood, Anaheim, Brea, Hemet, Simi Valley, Santa Barbara and Vallejo.

Rounding out the competition is El Pollo Loco, which offers flame-broiled chicken and Mexican-style food at 200 locations in California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas.


“We’re going to compete head-to-head with Boston Chicken,” said Ray Perry, El Pollo Loco’s chief operating officer. “Our objective is to continue to grow in Southern California through company and franchise development.”

Industry veterans El Pollo Loco and KFC are betting that their lower prices will prevail over those of newcomers Boston Chicken and Kenny Rogers Roasters, which offer costlier meals and a wider variety of side dishes. Perry argues that consumers at Boston Chicken will pay more than $3 for “exactly the same size piece of chicken that we sell for $1.99. That’s what makes me feel we’ll be able to compete very strongly.”

Provost of KFC is also betting that KFC will benefit if roasted chicken proves to be more than a fad. “Boston Chicken will get Biff and Buffy Yuppie, the couple with the Mercedes that thinks alfalfa is a neat veggie to go with their meal,” Provost said. “We want Joe and Jane in middle-class America. . . . And there’s awful lot more Joes and Janes out there.”

While chicken’s popularity is growing in part simply because it tastes good, outlets are also benefiting from consumer demand for more variety in take-home fare. Increasingly, Perry said, consumers are learning that “chicken travels best of all the quick-service restaurants, including pizza.”

According to figures provided by KFC, Americans purchased $346 billion in food during 1988 at regular grocery stores and about $155 billion in food that was prepared elsewhere but eaten at home. Grocery store purchases rose at a healthy pace to $399 billion by 1992, Provost said, but prepared-food sales zoomed to $265 billion.

That trend means the chicken restaurants are competing in the broader category of “what the industry is calling the ‘meal replacement segment’ than just against each other,” Boston Pacific’s Coin said.


The emphasis increasingly is on whole meals. Boston Chicken offers a wide array of hot and cold side orders--including rice pilaf, fresh steamed vegetables and real mashed potatoes--that are made fresh daily. “We’re definitely not fast food,” Coin said.

While the market is growing, however, observers suggest that the chicken chains may be due to have their wings clipped.

Competitors question whether high-flying Boston Chicken, whose stock soared from $20 to $48.50 when it went public on Nov. 9, 1993, can hit projected double-digit profit margins. They also question whether KFC, which recently shuffled its top management in a bid to stimulate flat overall sales, can regain its focus.

Perry acknowledged that El Pollo Loco, a subsidiary of Spartanburg, S.C.-based Flagstar Corp., has had to scramble in the face of new competition. “A year ago, I would have said that El Pollo was a dying chain,” Perry said. “But we’re up and running. We’ll continue to work this year and next. We now look like a winner.”

Despite the roasted chicken rage, some chains are sticking with fried food.

Atlanta-based America’s Favorite Chicken is renovating its 2,000 Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits and Churchs Chicken restaurants and adding menu items. It dramatically expanded its Southern California presence in recent months as 65 Pioneer chicken takeout stores converted to Popeyes locations.

America’s Favorite declares that it isn’t going the rotisserie route yet.

“We think the jury is still out on roasted chicken,” said Mike Whitten, senior vice president of America’s Favorite Chicken. “But we know that there’s a tremendous opportunity on the fried chicken segment.”


Hold the Grease

When restaurant and fast-food customers order chicken, they prefer non-fried varieties. Percentage change in customers’ entree orders:

1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 Rotisserie, broiled, grilled 20% 15% 4% 4% 22% Barbecued 4% 9% 13% 43% -30% Fried 4% 5% 8% -3% No change

Sit-down Dining vs. Fast Food

Regular dining is still a popular pastime, but takeout and fast-food establishments are seeing a lot of action, especially from busy families. Percentage of adults surveyed in 1992 who have had various types of dining experiences within the past year: Ate at sit-down restaurant: 92% Ate at fast-food restaurant: 82% Ordered at drive-through: 78% Purchased fast food and ate it elsewhere: 76% Ate home-delivered fast food: 47% Ate non-frozen, carryout meal (Purchased from supermarket, convenience store or deli): 45% Ate carryout meal from sit-down restaurant: 40% Ate food delivered from sit-down restaurant: 14%

Nutrition Check

A nutritional summary for some popular fast-food restaurant items:

Calories Total Price Weight from fat Calories fat McDonald’s basic burger $.59 4 oz. 32% 255 9g Burger King Big Fish Sandwich $1.93 9 oz. 54% 720 43g KFC Original Recipe (fried chicken) $2.30 7oz. 50% 490 27g KFC Rotisserie Gold chicken (dark meat) $2.24 5 oz. 65% 333 24g Wendy’s French Fries $.89 5 oz. 45% 340 17g

Saturated fat McDonald’s basic burger 3g Burger King Big Fish Sandwich 8g KFC Original Recipe (fried chicken) 7g KFC Rotisserie Gold chicken (dark meat) 7g Wendy’s French Fries 4g

Source: National Restaurant Assn., Consumer Reports (August, 1994); Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times