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Restaurant chains double down on chicken to boost foot traffic

Wendy's Grilled Chicken Sandwich
Source: Wendy's
Wendy's Grilled Chicken Sandwich

A lot of the new items on restaurant menus have something in common: chicken.

There are crispy chicken chips, taco shells made out of fried chicken, plus chicken flavored with honey mustard or sriracha — and that's just in the past few months.

The top 250 restaurant chains added some 325 new chicken items during the 12 months ended June 30, according to research from Technomic. For comparison, only 73 new beef items were added in the same period.

The trend reflects consumer cravings for healthier, high-protein meat, not to mention a decade of high beef prices, which made chicken more appetizing for the companies' bottom line.

Since chicken can be healthy or indulgent, it can please a wide spectrum of diners, said Mark Kalinowski, a Nomura analyst.

The new products are also aimed at bolstering sluggish sales, with chains looking to innovative, new products to create buzz and drive traffic into restaurants.

Consumers may have heard of Taco Bell's Cheetos Burrito or the Naked Chicken Chalupa, which features a chicken "taco shell." However, they may not be familiar with the Mexican food chain's latest test: Crispy Chicken Chips, which are wedge-shaped chicken tenders.

"Taco Bell clearly wants to figure out innovative ways to use chicken to its advantage," Kalinowski wrote in a recent research note. "Taco Bell's heritage of innovation continues. And with Taco Bell likely to become more relevant to investors once Yum China is divested from parent company Yum Brands, it's good to keep an eye on 'the Bell.'"

New products can also help chains grab new customers, said Ken Harris, managing partner at Cadent Consulting Group.

"[Brands] want to delight consumers in a way they haven't expected," he told CNBC.

Georgia Gold Chicken from KFC
Source: KFC
Georgia Gold Chicken from KFC

Even chains known for their chicken can mix it up a bit. KFC has been testing Georgia Gold Chicken in Pittsburgh and Mobile, Alabama. The honey-mustard barbecue flavored chicken is available through Sept. 4 at five different locations.

"Following on the footsteps of KFC's success earlier this year with the national rollout of Nashville Hot Chicken, it looks like KFC aims to test something with a different flavor profile," Kalinowski wrote. "In general, we view KFC's innovation of this type as a move in the right direction for a brand that needs such reinvention."

At Wendy's, the focus is on updating its grilled chicken sandwich with a new version that is made with all-white meat chicken and placed between a bun made from nine grains and seeds. The sandwich was first tested in 2015 in four cities: Austin; Gainesville, Florida; Kansas City, Missouri and Orlando, Florida. It has since been rolled out nationwide and will be made with antibiotic-free chicken in 2017.

"In general, quick-service chains continue to figure out ways to make their food more palatable to their customers, who arguably care more about — and are more informed about — what they're putting into their bodies than ever before," Kalinowski wrote. "We expect this trend to generally continue as the future unfolds."

Quick-service restaurants associated with chicken, in general, have outpaced their competitors in the pizza, burger and Mexican food categories, according to research from YouGov BrandIndex.

The company, which measures consumer perceptions of brands, asked fast-food eaters over 18 what products they've heard about and if they would buy them. Overwhelmingly, restaurants focused on chicken received higher ratings.

(In both tables, Chipotle Mexican Grill was left out of the Mexican food category for both metrics, because it skews the results too radically, according to YouGov.)

For the "buzz" metric, YouGov asked respondents to score the restaurants in each category based on what they had heard about it either through advertising, news or word of mouth on a scale from negative 100 to 100.

The purchase consideration metric asked fast-food eaters to answer which brands they would consider purchasing in the future. Respondents give a score from zero to 100 percent. This particular metric can indicate potential sales for different sectors, according to YouGov.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the timeline of when Wendy's grilled chicken sandwich will become antibiotic free.