- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

SALISBURY, Md. — Has rotisserie chicken lost its sizzle? Ready-cooked chickens flew off grocers’ shelves in the 1990s, but sales have begun leveling off, industry estimates show. Grocers worry customers are getting bored with the birds, even in lemon pepper or barbecue flavors, and they’re throwing new meats on the skewer. Coming soon: rotisserie pork loins and beef.

“You don’t want to eat chicken every day,” said Barry Loy of Supermarket Operations, an eight-store grocery chain based in Mississippi. He still sells rotisserie chickens, but now he’s experimenting with hot baby back ribs, smoked sausage and ham. The beef and the pork are “probably growing faster than the chicken,” he said, even though they cost more.

Competition from other meats has not gone unnoticed by chicken producers. Although 750 million rotisserie chickens were sold last year — two-thirds of them in grocery stores — sales growth was just 3 percent, about the same as the overall chicken category, according to the National Chicken Council in the District.

“It was growing in the double digits there for a while,” said the council’s vice president, Bill Roenigk.

Perdue Farms Inc., the nation’s third-largest chicken producer, has a test kitchen at its headquarters in Salisbury where the company is trying to cook up a higher flight path for rotisserie chicken sales.

Cutting into a steaming chicken nearly black with a spice rub of garlic, basil, rosemary and oregano, Perdue product marketing manager John Moore says shoppers still love rotisserie chickens. They just want their birds to have more zip.

“We’re thinking more robust flavors,” Mr. Moore said. “Americans are becoming more sophisticated in their palates.”

So Perdue is rolling out a spicier Italian flavor, called Tuscan, and has already tested a new line for Latino shoppers, called Perdue La Cocina.

One large grocer, Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., has regional chicken flavors such as tandoori and apricot glaze. Company spokesman Gary Rhodes said the grocer hasn’t ruled out selling other rotisserie meats, though.

Andy Seymour, a vice president of sales and marketing for Perdue’s deli line, conceded that the rotisserie chickens offered in grocery stores haven’t changed much since the concept took off more than a decade ago.

“There’s not a been lot of new flavors in that category, and there’s a real need for that,” he said.

It didn’t used to be this way. Starting in the late 1980s, fueled by the popularity of rotisserie chickens in restaurants such as Boston Market, chicken processors started premarinading birds so grocery stores could join the trend. A few years later came different flavors — cue the lemon pepper and barbecue — and time-pressed shoppers snapped them up for easy dinners.

“It answers the question, what’s for dinner?” said Perry Fleming of Jubilee Festival grocery stores in Minnesota and Wisconsin. “There’s very little time involved with taking them home and serving them. People see it as healthy and convenient.”

But maybe grocers haven’t done a good job selling the birds, said food industry analyst Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com.

“It has to be theater,” Mr. Lempert said, noting that high-end stores that keep their rotisserie cases gleaming, sometimes with shooting flames, have maintained sales growth of rotisserie birds.

New meats will give chickens more competition. Mr. Lempert noted the Brazilian steakhouse fad that has people packing restaurants that serve hot cuts of steak and pork.

“We’re going to see more rotisserie everything,” he said.

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