The pull of poultry
Published:  11 November, 2011

Appreciated for flavour, value and nutritional qualities, poultry is one of the most popular meats you can find. David Lishman, from Lishman’s of Ilkley in Yorkshire, explains that every customer who walks into his shop buys at least one chicken product. “It’s very rare to meet people who don’t like chicken,” he adds.

According to John Mettrick, co-director of 
J W Mettrick & Son in Derbyshire, chicken is a best-seller because people still perceive it as a rather cheap meat. Whatever the reason, there are many ways butchers can bank on poultry to increase business.

Compromise on higher welfare

Animal welfare is an important concern, but with the recession hitting their purses, customers are becoming reluctant to spend extra money for free-range poultry. David 
says: “We used to sell a whole bird for £3.50, but now we sell it for £5. Chicken has gone up so much in the last few months that people don’t 
tend to pay the money for free-range any more.”

Malcolm Pyne, from Pyne’s of Somerset, has also noticed that people do not worry about welfare as much as they used to. “Sales of 
free-range and organic poultry have been static, but there has been an increase in barn-reared poultry. There is definitely more pull in that direction, and it is financially driven,” he says.

In Northern Ireland, Michael O’Kane of O’Kane Meats explains why customers who come into his shop never even ask about welfare. “We are a farming community, so people cannot afford to buy organic,” he says. 
Faced with the paradox between customers’ lingering concerns about welfare and their reticence to pay for higher-welfare poultry, some butchers are seeking a compromise. Stewart Collins, from S Collins & Son in Scotland, offers higher-welfare barn-reared chicken for £8-£10. “Customers are willing to pay more, to some extent, and they don’t want caged stuff,” he  says.

John says his best-seller is a higher-welfare, indoor-reared chicken. “We buy them from a farm with higher standards than the RSPCA [Freedom Foods] asks for — lots of space and natural daylight,” he explains. Priced between £8 and £12, compared to about £15 for a free-range whole bird, these chickens are the perfect compromise for people torn between their conscience and their finances. 
“It would be nice to have more free-range, but in the real world, people don’t pay £15 for a chicken when they can get it for half that price,” David points out.

Add value to your cuts

Consumption of whole birds is declining as people increasingly look for meals that are quick and convenient. John says he has managed to keep sales of whole chickens 
up by offering special deals, but he notices 
that customers always prefer to buy cuts, especially breasts. 
David adds that the proportion between whole birds and cuts has grown to around 50/50 in the past few months. “Chicken used to be associated with a Sunday roast, but now people like chicken without bones, that’s quick and easy to cook,” he adds.

Compared to whole birds, cuts allow for a wide variety of popular added-value products. “We decided to innovate to make chicken more appealing,” John says. “We started offering a chicken fillet roast with emmenthal, bacon and pineapple, and it became so popular that we expanded the range. We now prepare eight different kinds with chorizo, mozzarella, green pesto and other stuffings.”

Malcolm says he sells all sorts of added-value products, among which are chicken kiev, lemon and coriander chicken, and chicken and mushroom pie. “People’s favourite is always chicken kiev,” he notes.

David recently decided to innovate with a chorizo, cheese and chilli chicken fillet, and has had great reactions. He says: “Chicken is quite a plain flavour, but with the combination of hot flavours from the chorizo and cheese, and the ginger, chilli and lime marinade, it is really delicious.” He points out that the appearance 
of his dish is also what appeals to customers. 
“It looks very interesting, and people like things that look nice.”

Surf on the slimming wave

In the past few years, chicken has been put forward by dietitians as a very lean meat, and butchers have started to latch on to that trend. 
A member of the Elite Butchers Association of Northern Ireland, Michael has participated with his brother Kiernan in creating a range of slimming stir-fries with the help of celebrity chef Jenny Bristow, and claims it has been very successful. “Butchers who want to start a slimming range should study the market first, 
to make sure they offer the type of products people want,” he advises. The ‘Slimming Solutions’ range is advertised on the butcher’s website, with a nutritional breakdown for
 each recipe.

Stewart also has a range of slimming products on offer, the majority of which are chicken-based. “Everybody wants to eat healthily, so our healthy range is working 
very well. We recently started labelling our products with all the nutritional information, 
so customers know how many calories are in the dishes.”

Promote other birds

Although far behind chicken in terms of volume, turkey, duck and game birds are still a good opportunity to boost poultry sales. “The second best-selling type of poultry is turkey,” John says. “We sell it as whole birds, breasts, thigh rolls, and even turkey sausages.”
With the game season running, it is also a good time to sell pheasant. David says: “They are quite popular, even if it’s very seasonal.”
He adds that although whole duck sales are “very marginal”, customers enjoy duck breasts, especially prepared with his four seasons marinade, made with different types of berries.

Anna Elmon, communication manager at Gressingham Foods, believes duck has a lot to offer. “Unlike other poultry, you don’t need to add anything to it, because it is already full of flavour,” she adds. She points out that duck is the only poultry that can be eaten rare, and 
that it is a very versatile meat. “If you remove the skin, it is very healthy; if you keep the 
skin on you get more flavour. It goes well with 
a plum or orange sauce, in a curry or even in 
a salad.”

With its nutritional assets and competitive price, poultry is the recession’s winning protein and, according to a recent Rabobank report, it will overtake pork as the world’s most consumed meat by 2020. Now, it seems, is the perfect time for butchers to diversify their poultry offering and cater for what customers are really looking for.