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Consumers flock to new takes on fried chicken

While few things may be more closely associated to crispy-fried poultry than a smiling colonel, that fact appears to be shifting.

Typically dominated by large chains, the market for fried chicken is getting a makeover.

"I like to say KFC no longer stands for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but Korean-fried chicken," said Lee Schrager, author of "Fried and True."

Federal Donuts’ glazed and dry-spiced Korean-fried chicken.
Source: Michael Persico | Federal Donuts
Federal Donuts’ glazed and dry-spiced Korean-fried chicken.

Recipes featured in Schrager's book give a peek at where things are heading as this years' National Fried Chicken Day is celebrated Sunday. New flavors are achieved by varying the type of fat used to the application of seasoning or brining. The bottom line: although fried chicken consumption is declining among the major chains, it is roosting high among mom-and-pops and small chains.

The amount of fried chicken consumed in restaurants has steadily declined over the past four years, according to restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs of the NPD Group. Major restaurant chains, which produce 63 percent of all fried chicken servings in restaurants, make up nearly all of the 11 percent loss in U.S. fried chicken consumption from March 2013 to March 2014, Riggs said.

In stark contrast, small chains experienced a 12 percent rise in fried chicken consumption and independent restaurants did not experience any significant consumption changes, she said.

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"Maybe for the smaller guys the price-value relationship is better than with the larger chains," Riggs said. "When consumers define value, they're talking about a fresh ingredient, and quality, tasty food at reasonable and affordable prices. Even if they pay a little more, if it meets their value expectations, they're willing to pay the price."

Federal Donuts in Philadelphia is what NPD Group would define as a small chain. Owner Steven Cook said that the restaurant, as of today, serves around 1,500 chickens per week at its four locations and a ballpark stand. It started a tiny store in 2011 that served 15 chickens on its first day.

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"I think at the artisanal level it's a bit different than fast food trends," Cook said. "I think like you've seen in hamburgers, where the huge guys have gotten so big that the quality they've built their name on has gotten less important, that that allows smaller chains to grow in that vacuum, like Shake Shack, where food is made fresh-to-order. I think that's what's happening with fried chicken."

The "Boxcar" fried chicken sandwich from Boxcar Betty's in Charleston, S.C.
Shawn Whittington | Boxcar Betty's
The "Boxcar" fried chicken sandwich from Boxcar Betty's in Charleston, S.C.

Scott Wink, a fried chicken and Southern food fan who runs Charleston Food Bloggers, said he agrees with Cook's supposition about quality.

"Southerners know their fried chicken. They know what it should taste like, how it should smell, and how it makes them feel," Wink said. "Some larger chains assume that combining a fried chicken restaurant and a pizza restaurant in a shared building and on the same sign provides efficiency that can help them be more profitable. They are wrong."

Wink cited a recent experience with a fried chicken sandwich topped with peach slaw, pimento cheese and spicy mayo at Boxcar Betty's in Charleston, S.C., as tantalizing proof of why small chains and independent restaurants are taking the fried chicken market back.

"These new restaurant owners can combine higher quality products with unique flavors and get lesser margins or similar margins, depending on the price they charge, and grow large loyal followings that take customers away from the chains," he said.

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Federal Donuts' chickens are antibiotic-free, cage-free and are fed a 100 percent vegetarian diet. Plus, to further emphasize the price-value relationship, Federal Donuts only serves donuts, coffee and Korean-style fried chicken, allowing the restaurant to focus on each item's quality.

"I think we're not the healthiest food in the world, but with the quality of chicken we're using, it's wholesome," Cook said. "I think that when you only do three things, the promise on our end of the bargain is that we're going to do those things really, really well. Fried chicken is a process and you can't just stick it on a huge menu and do it as well as when it's one of the only things that you're doing."


Chili-garlic glazed fried chicken and a honey-glazed donut from Federal Donuts in Philadelphia, PA.
Source: Michael Persico | Federal Donuts
Chili-garlic glazed fried chicken and a honey-glazed donut from Federal Donuts in Philadelphia, PA.

Price's Chicken Coop in Charlotte, N.C., has a similar approach to quality. That has allowed it to exist and thrive for 52 years.

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"For good fried chicken, the first thing that pops to my mind is hard work and consistency," said owner Andrew Price. "We try to cook it close and keep it rotating. All we do is basically chicken; we try to keep our menu basic and not overkill everybody with a large menu."

"It's an iconic American comfort food. It's not going anywhere. In moderation, it's delicious, easy to make, and it's a long stay. As long as we're reading menus, it's going to be on them," Schrager said.

By Bo McMillan, Special to CNBC.com

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