Fried chicken

Chicken is listed on 96 percent of American menus.

Chances are you eat chicken.

Chicken remains phenomenally popular in the U.S. That presents a challenge for the National Chicken Council, which earlier this week held its annual Chicken Marketing Summit at Charleston Place. Without new customers to win over, the group has to figure out how to increase per capita chicken consumption.

For example, chicken is listed on 96 percent of American menus. The only item more ubiquitous in restaurants is soda.

Kelley Fechner, director of customer solutions for market research firm Dataessential, reported on a few restaurant chains that have landed on ways to make chicken more attractive. Covering chicken with cheese, pairing it with eggs and dipping it in biscuit batter are reliable ways to increase chicken sales, she said.

(Church’s Chicken is responsible for Honey Butter Biscuit Tenders, which outperformed 99 percent of the 20,000 items in Dataessential’s database when scored for customer interest.)

“You’re not going to go to a restaurant and order something that might not taste good, so flavors are really the key,” Fechner said, adding that hot honey and garlic-Parmesan show promise as chicken enticements.

Chickens are omnipresent in home kitchens, too, with 97 percent of U.S. households keeping fresh meat in the refrigerator. In many cases, the meat in question is chicken, which remains the top choice for nine out of 10 adults at mealtime.

According to the 2019 Chicken Consumption Survey, while meats such as turkey and lamb are steadily declining, overall chicken consumption last year grew by almost 1 percent.

“You can begin to see it’s not just a one-time thing,” WATT Global Media vice president Joyce Neth said, referencing similar figures in previous years. “When you think about future growth, I like the numbers.”

To encourage growth in retail sales, speakers suggested the chicken industry focus on convenient cuts, such as stir-fry chicken chunks, chicken kebabs and chicken fajita strips. Sales in that category were up 14 percent last year, even though 41 percent of consumers say they won’t experiment with new cuts.

(Despite all the wing hoopla in recent years, breasts still account for 60 percent of chicken sales. Thighs are on the rise, attracting 12 percent of chicken dollars. Whole birds have taken a nose dive since 2013, with 42 million fewer complete chickens sold.)

Meagan Nelson of Nielsen encouraged producers to play up the protein in chicken. The Chicken Consumption Survey shows that consumers swoon when chicken is labeled as both protein-rich and possessive of some other desirable trait, such as “natural” or “high in pro-biotics.”

“Only 42 percent of people know chicken is a high protein product,” Nelson said. “Those are terrible numbers.”

Nelson counseled chicken producers not to fret about meat alternatives, such as plant-based meat substitutes and lab-grown meat. She pointed out that research shows most people who buy meat alternatives are four times more likely to put something else in their shopping carts, too: Meat.

In fact, “People who buy meat alternatives are spending more on meat.”

(Speaking of shopping carts, Nelson said the rise of grocery delivery services is likely to result in supermarkets allocating more space for butcher counters, since customers are reluctant to order meat online.)

Consumers could become more militant about going meat free, but Nelson doesn’t foresee that happening anytime soon.

When Nelson’s firm polled consumers, only 16 percent of them indicated they were aware of a connection between livestock farming and climate change. Of that group, only half of them wanted to learn more about the topic. And, of those consumers, only 61 percent said they would consider cutting back on meat.

Ingles Market corporate dietitian Leah McGrath concurred, saying Ingles shoppers aren’t as worried about global warming as social media suggests.

“Sometimes, I’ll brace myself for a question about animal welfare or GMOs when I ask if anybody has a question,” she said. “And they’ll say, ‘Is it true that some carrots are made by mashing up other carrots?’ The important things for our customers are taste, price and health. They want low sodium, low sugar, no artificial ingredients, no preservatives and whole grain.”

McGrath and Nelson both urged their listeners not to fight consumers’ interest in vegetables.

“People aren’t going to eat just a chicken breast,” McGrath said.

They’d apparently prefer it in chicken-and-broccoli strata, saturated with plenty of Parmesan cheese.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.