Chicken’s share of the menu at foodservice restaurants is 45 percent – far and away the greatest among meat proteins – but there’s room to grow that share ... if marketers exploit key disconnects between foodservice operators’ perceptions and consumer behavior.

That’s according to Maeve Webster, senior director for the market research firm, Dataessential. She presented new meat protein market studies at the 2012 Chicken Marketing Seminar.

“Chicken is a workhorse for foodservice operators,” Webster told seminar attendees. “It works across the menu; it works different day parts; it works with different ethnically inspired items; and it works in different trends.”

New survey tracks chicken 

According to a survey of 388 foodservice operators, chicken’s average share of entrees and appetizers that feature meat proteins is 35 percent for white-meat chicken and 10 percent for dark-meat chicken. Compare those shares to 27 percent for beef, 13 percent for seafood/fish, 13 percent for pork and 2 percent for lamb.

An astounding 97 percent of Datassential’s MenuTrends database (4,500-plus menus) includes chicken, while the percentages for the other meats are as follows: beef 85 percent, shrimp 67 percent, bacon 66 percent, pork 58 percent, ham 55 percent and turkey 49 percent.

Chicken also leads in consumption increases in a recent Dataessential survey of 3,500 consumers. Thirty-five percent of consumers have increased their ordering of chicken, while 31 percent increased their ordering of seafood/fish and 26 percent increased their ordering of beef.

So where’s the opportunity for gaining share for chicken? 

Webster pointed to three marketing opportunities or challenges for chicken marketers to exploit. Each is connected to disconnects between the perceptions of foodservice operators and consumer behavior.

Disconnect 1: Pork is the new focus for foodservice 

More foodservice operators are planning to add pork (25 percent) and seafood (19 percent) to their menus than new chicken items (13 percent) in the next two years, according to the survey. That’s despite the fact that 35 percent of consumers are increasing their ordering of chicken items.

“Why aren’t foodservice operators looking at adding more chicken? The challenge is for chicken marketers to help foodservice operators understand that chicken is helping to drive their sales growth,” she said.

Disconnect 2: Beef receives more seasonal and limited time offer promotion 

Foodservice operators are more likely to consider beef for winter- and fall-specific items and limited time offers, but there is no reason that chicken would not perform well in these categories due to its superior versatility and value.

Chicken marketers need to focus on foodservice operators who are not using chicken to position themselves against their competitors. Chicken marketers need to say to them, "Look, this is who we are, and this is what we can do."

Disconnect 3: Price shifts are likely to impact menuing 

Foodservice operators indicated that if the price of beef was at or below the price of chicken, they would consider increasing their menuing of beef overall (45 percent); consider adding higher-end cuts of beef (34 percent); or would not change menuing (33 percent).

Consumers, however, are not as sensitive to pricing differentials as the operators’ menuing intentions would indicate. Thirty-five percent of consumers were as likely to order either entrée when beef is at or below the price of chicken. And while 15 percent of consumers were much more likely to order an entrée with beef, 22 percent were much more likely to order an entrée with chicken. The percentages of consumers somewhat more likely to order one entrée or the other were essentially the same.

Chicken marketers should consider educating foodservice operators about these disconnects between marketing plans and consumer behavior, Webster said. “It is not unusual for foodservice operators to not fully understand all the trends and issues for their customers,” she concluded.

The Chicken Marketing Seminar is sponsored by the National Chicken Council and the National Poultry and Food Distributors Association.