Here’s a loaded question posed by a supply chain manager at a foodservice company: Is the chicken industry prepared and equipped to address emerging consumer expectations about sustainability, local food production, animal welfare, social responsibility, and more? His answer was that the entire food supply chain is struggling to meet that challenge but the good news is consumers are open to positive answers from the poultry industry.

A panel of restaurant and grocery executives at the 2012 Chicken Marketing Seminar said, however, that poultry producers won’t fare well in the marketplace if consumers are left to fill in the blanks for themselves about socially charged questions like the following:

 

  • Are you a factory farm?
  • Do you feed your chickens hormones?
  • Where does the chicken come from and where are the farms?
  • Are your chickens free-range birds?
  • Are your operation and products "green" and sustainable?
  • Do you treat your workers and growers well?

 

A compelling narrative is required from the poultry industry to educate consumers on these issues. Grocery retailers and restaurants, in fact, are waiting for the industry to help answer the questions that they are being asked by shoppers and diners every week.

Find sustainability sweet spots  

Authenticity is essential, but a panelist said elaborate story lines are not required. Said Tim McGinnis, corporate chef and product development manager, Swiss Farms, “Find the sustainability sweet spots that exist for chicken and talk about them now.”

Swiss Farms is a drive-through grocery chain outside Philadelphia and is known for its customer service and fresh food. Customers order fill-in grocery items from the convenience of their cars, including fresh, from-scratch breakfasts and coffee. A lunch program includes rotisserie chicken prepared in-house.

“Ideally all of our products would be environmentally friendly in every way, create local jobs, be 100 percent healthy, affordable and make us all skinnier and better looking” McGinnis said. “But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, because there are sweet spots for chicken that producers can talk about now.

“Swiss Farms chickens, for example, are local, so there is job creation. They are healthy in people’s diets, because chicken is high in protein and low in fat. And the product is planet friendly with 100 percent recyclable packaging. Those are the sustainable sweet spots that already exist in your product.
“These are the sustainable marketing talking points that you should talk about to people like me, a chef, and to consumers. You already have products that are rife with sustainability sweet spots,” he said.

Give customers a narrative tool box  

McGinnis concluded, “Give your customers a tool box to work with, whether it involves innovation or education behind the product. Give the chef the tools to be able to answer consumer questions like, ‘Is this chicken hormone free?’ The answer is that all chicken is hormone free. The point is that we have to be able to help the consumer feel better about what they are eating.”

Developing the narrative  

Though consumers often start with negative attitudes about animal production practices, they are more open to education from the industry than many believe. Referring to the stereotype of “factory farms,” McGinnis said, “Chicken marketers would hate those words, but consumers are not going to use the term ‘large-scale chicken manufacturers who practice important safety procedures for their employees and animals.’ Instead, they come into the store and ask, ‘Did you get the chicken from a factory farm?’ They are usually just repeating buzz words and are open to being educating by someone who is more expert than them.”

Michael Reinert, vice president supply chain management, Delaware North Companies, agreed, saying, “There is great opportunity to put a positive spin on a lot of the negativity that is out there. Mass food production is not a bad thing. It feeds the world. Consumers can be led to understand that the world can’t be fed with small-scale farming. The industry could do a much better job communicating all the benefits and all the high technology and the food safety and all the positives that production on a large scale brings to a community in terms of jobs and economic benefits.”

McGinnis used his own company’s narrative as an example: “Swiss Farms is known for its milk, bread and eggs. The milk is manufactured by Dean Foods, which is a huge conglomerate. But it is also a co-op where there are faces of farmers in Lancaster County, and consumers can visit those farms and see that it is actually a farm. The public is drawn to the negatives, so you have to fight back with the positives. Paint your business and the ag business as a whole as back to basics and simple life. People don’t know the background behind your businesses, but they want to know about it.”

Green and sustainable products and practices  

Delaware North, which manages foodservice operations in national parks, airports, casinos and sports facilities across the nation, began to focus on sustainable products in its parks division 20 years ago. Its sustainability platform, called “Green Path,” has proven important in landing new parks business. “Now we have taken it across our entire company and it has become a very important friend for us as well as our customers and clients,” Reinert said.

Delaware North purchases around 4 million pounds of chicken a year, 3.5 million pounds of which is directly contracted with the remainder acquired through indirect contracts.

Locally sourced food production  

“Another key trend is the emphasis on locally sourced food production,” Reinert said. “We focus on local sourcing and a 100-mile menu in many of our operations due to customer demands. The local focus is driven in part by sustainability concerns and the carbon footprint. The other aspect is the economic protectionism. This is where our clients are trying to induce us or in some cases requiring us to do as much business as possible with local suppliers so that we bring value to the local economy,” he said.

Educate the chef, who educates the guests  

Tom Bivins, co-owner and chef, Crop Bistro & Brewery, a local restaurant in Stowe, Vt., prepares as much local food as possible. Vermont is a state where the local food movement has been in the forefront of making sure people buy locally.

“I know who my chicken farmers are in Vermont. I may use only one of their products, and then use something from larger-scale producers outside Vermont. But I have been to those places and know what they do or have been the smart chef and asked the questions to figure out whether or not it is a quality product that my customers would be happy with.
“The reality is that most consumers don’t really know what they are talking about half the time. We get people coming in all the time making the most outrageous comments. They do, however, expect the chef to know what he is talking about.”

Healthy lifestyles, healthy eating  

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“Healthy lifestyle and healthy eating is not a new concept but is one that has picked up momentum in the past two years,” Reinert said. “The goal in the past was to give people choices on the menu – low-fat muffins, or a healthier choice. But people don’t choose the healthier items, even though they say they want healthier food. We are now seeing government intervention in some cases to eliminate unhealthy items on the menu. That includes efforts by the National Park Service to menu-engineer to not only create healthy offerings but remove unhealthy ones,” he said.

Customers desire to know more about what they are eating  

Vincent Ligas, director of procurement, Giant Eagle, said sustainability and animal handling and welfare are becoming increasingly important issues for consumers. He said Giant Eagle receives questions about these issues on a weekly basis.

Chicken is important to the company, which operates 10 different poultry programs under its five different company banners: Giant Eagle, Market District, GEX (GetGo Express), Valu King and GetGo (gas stations). Its 230 retail outlets are in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia.

“Consumers want to know how food is raised and what it was fed,” he said. “They want to know where the product comes from and where the farms are located. They also ask questions about nutritional information, including about ingredients and additives."

Reinert agreed, saying, “The customer has a desire to know more and more about what they are eating and where it came from. Is it organic? Is it sustainable? Are antibiotics used? What about pesticides? How was the animal treated? How was it harvested? How was it produced within the factory? What techniques were used to produce the product?”
Ligas added, “There should be no hidden surprises. Lack of transparency hurts everyone in the supply chain.”

Digital and social media now mainstream  

Giant Eagle maintains what it calls a Digital Eco System to interact with customers about customer issues. The tools in that system include social media, QR codes, E-offers, online media, loyalty support programs, email and websites.

“You can touch prospective or new consumers before they even leave home with all of these venues,” Ligas said.

The system’s digital usage numbers are impressive:

 

  • 1 billion E-offer downloads have occurred
  • The company has launched mobile apps for both iPhone and Android, with 79,000 mobile users
  • More than 150,000 customers “Like Us” or follow the company or view its videos on social networks
  • Nearly 300 million online impressions have occurred

 

“The QR code is a great example of mobile media for which there are numerous applications. The produce industry has used QR codes for promotion of fruit salsa. The QR code brings up the ingredients and how to make it. The seafood industry has used QR codes to link the consumer directly to the captain of a fishing boat in a seafood event. Veal suppliers use it to talk about veal’s new direction – no longer tethered but group raised.”

Popeyes reaches younger customers with social media  

Marshall Scarborough, research and development chef, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, said the company uses social media to sell more chicken, something that is especially effective with younger consumers. The chain recently re-launched its spicy and mild profiles with boost from social media.
“Part of the national campaign was a Facebook concept called the Mood Wing. Customers were able to download an app that when clicked on would tell them what their mood was – spicy or mild. “This was a way to engage a younger audience,” he said.

Costs play a role  

All those socially responsive products must meet the ultimate test. “When it comes to the bottom line, what premium are guests willing to pay for products with their desired attributes?” Reinert said. “There was a survey in Consumer Reports not long ago that put a number to that question. It said that certain percentages of consumers would pay certain premium levels for products with certain attributes. You have to be careful when you finally do that on your menu because people’s surveyed intent does not match their actual buying behavior,” he concluded.

Tim McGinnis agreed, saying, “People will ask for everything and want it cheap.”

In the final analysis, the supply chain must answer the following questions posed by Reinert: “Which product attributes are most desirable for each business segment? Which are least important? That’s really what we struggle with in designing our menus to try to figure out how big of a calling a particular product attribute is to a particular line of business. How do we reconcile all of that? How can we do a better job of supplying what our customers are requesting?”