A Hot Challenge For Chicken
By Jim Daly

Chicken remains dominant in the deli rotisserie case, but newer varieties of pork and turkey give retailers added ammunition for attracting new customers.
Chicken is strengthening its position as the king of the deli rotisserie case. More retailers are expanding their rotisserie chicken offerings and adding additional flavors and package sizes to attract an even larger base of convenience-minded shoppers seeking quick, tasty, meals.
Indeed, the Washington, D.C.-based National Chicken Council projects that a record number of rotisserie chickens — estimated to be about 775 million birds — will be sold in 2006.
Yet, chicken is just one of an assortment of rotisserie proteins being targeted at the take-home sector. Pork and turkey, for instance, also are becoming more prevalent as suppliers and merchants expand their protein selections and their marketing of the meats in an attempt to muscle in on chicken’s control of the case and attract additional buyers.
Although many rotisserie chicken customers are attracted by the low-fat, inexpensive, yet flavorful option, producers of rotisserie products say consumers increasingly want something more. “People have been chickened to death,” notes Paul Owen, director of business management at Smithfield Foods Inc.’s Smithfield Deli Group.
Owen says the processor, which is marketing rotisserie pork, is not trying to knock chicken off its perch, but wants to give shoppers more offerings in order to help build repeat business for the supermarket deli.
“Consumers have told us they would frequent the deli more if they find a variety of proteins,” adds Mary Stiles, product manager, innovation, at Tyson Foods Inc., which markets rotisserie pork loins as well as chicken.
Adds Alan Hiebert, education information specialist at the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, “Chicken will be the thing consumers look for in the rotisserie case, but it makes sense for retailers to branch out. The rotisserie’s slow-cooking method makes sense for a lot of proteins.”
And more of those proteins are appearing in the rotisserie case. Steven J. Rosen, chief executive officer of Rosen Enterprises, a Cooper City, Fla.-based retail foodservice consulting firm, notes, for instance, that game hens, ducks and fish also are being marketed in some locations.
Packaging for the newer rotisserie products also often mirrors those used for chicken. A large number of pork items, for instance, are being sold in black plastic trays with clear domes. “Chicken is so entrenched, that we can help consumers choose an alternative by playing off the comfort they have with that whole-bird product,” says Karen Boillot, director of retail marketing for the Clive, Iowa-based National Pork Board.
Rotisserie pork and turkey have been available for years, yet the products are likely to become more popular as suppliers sharpen their focus on the items, analysts say.
Stiles says Tyson first introduced a rotisserie pork loin about two years ago, but the product “failed miserably,” primarily because “we didn’t do anything to support it.”
Stiles notes that Tyson subsequently drew on its consumer research, including data from 200 consumers polled specifically about pork loins, and marketplace signals to develop strategies to drive rotisserie pork sales. Out of this effort — part of Tyson’s “Rediscover Rotisserie” campaign — came a new fully cooked pork loin of just under a pound and about four inches in diameter.
Minor tweaking also was done with the flavoring, and sodium levels were decreased in response to consumer concerns about salt intake, Stiles notes.
The pork loins are seasoned at the plant, and Tyson recommends that the retailers cook the items in baskets and not skewers for optimal flavor.
Tyson provides merchants with rigid, black rotisserie pork trays —which are about seven inches long with four-inch-high domes — and also offers Tyson-branded sleeves.
The new product, launched in June, is available in Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Promotions for the pork loin include a $1-off instant redeemable coupon on the package. Shoppers also can visit a Tyson Web site, www.perfectporkloin.com, where, by answering 10 survey questions, they will receive a printable, $3-off bar-coded coupon.
Stiles says the “Rediscover Rotisserie” initiative likely will result in a family of products, which could eventually include pot roast. That will require some changes in the typical rotisserie cooking process because pot roast would need a slower, wet-cook method, she notes.
Smithfield, meanwhile, is marketing a boneless rotisserie pork loin rib-end that it originally developed at the request of one of its retail partners, Harris Teeter Inc., a Matthews, N.C.-based chain of 153 supermarkets in the Southeast, Owen says.
“It has been extremely successful,” he notes, declining to give numbers. “It’s giving the consumer more alternatives.”
Smithfield’s pork loin rib-ends weigh about 1.75 pounds each and seasoning is left up to the retailers. “We’re selling all over the country, and people in different areas like different spices,” Owen adds.
The pork items can be cooked in either conventional or convection ovens and displayed similarly to rotisserie chicken, he says. Retailers provide the packaging, usually a tray with dome, and while Smithfield furnishes labels, some retailers prefer to put their own branding on their package, he notes.
Similar to pork, suppliers also are taking steps to position turkey as a more attractive rotisserie option. Willmar, Minn.-based Jennie-O Turkey Store, for instance, is marketing its Bone In Rotisserie Breast which is sold in 20-ounce units and delivered in the familiar rotisserie claim shell that can be branded with either the Jennie-O or retailer’s name. The product is cooked and seasoned in merchant locations. Jennie-O also offers fully cooked smoked turkey drumsticks.
Jennifer Ehresmann, Jennie-O senior product manager, says company research found that consumers are willing to pay up to $2 more per unit for turkey than chicken, but notes that some shoppers still are he­­­­sitant to purchase unfamiliar non-chicken rotisserie items.
Still, Ehresmann says Jennie-O is realizing annualized double-digit sales increases with the rotisserie product, which is far ahead of the company’s overall deli sales growth.
She notes that Jennie-O is concentrating on launching new items to draw more traffic to the deli. The rotisserie turkey breast appeals to the many consumers who prefer only white meat, she says.
“Our goal is not to slow down chicken growth,” Ehresmann adds.
In addition to the prospect of spurring more rotisserie business by adding new products, retailers have another incentive for diversifying their lines — the potential fallout from avian influenza.
While avian influenza has affected foreign flocks and herds with minimal impact on U.S. shoppers’ consumption habits, the prospect of a domestic occurrence — and subsequent consumer concerns about the safety of American poultry — remains.
Owens notes that a variety of rotisserie options will help those retailers who are “looking for  a back-stop in case AI does hit the poultry products.”  
Jim Daly is a Mount Prospect, Ill.-based freelance writer.