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The chain was pitched around the idea of rotisserie chicken and vegetable sides, something that should be as familiar to the consumer as a cheeseburger and fries. Yet, there are a couple of basic differences between the two. For example, the person buying rotisserie chicken is probably making a more health-conscious decision than the person buying a cheeseburger. The sides would need to be healthier than fries. The bigger, more unavoidable difference, though, is that beef is sometimes considered luxurious and chicken is almost always considered budget.
Americans eat fried chicken by the 20-piece bucket, we eat hot wings by the dozen at the bar while watching a game, and we grab a shriveled rotisserie bird in the checkout line without thinking twice. With beef, we can ogle the marbleized fat in prime cuts or pay exorbitant markups for dry-aged or Kobe. Those luxuries have little to do with the virtues of a grass-fed cheeseburger, but their mere existence translates into a higher psychological value for beef. Beef is something you buy when you're treating yourself and happy to spend some money; chicken is what you buy when you're watching your wallet or your waist.
For Doty and his investors, the markup on this chicken chain had to stay within a certain range. The metrics of fast casual are nonnegotiable. The restaurant should be limited-service or self-service. The average entrée should hover near $10. The décor and flavors should be recognizably better than a fast-food restaurant, but neither should be sophisticated enough to put off or confuse the average taste. Screw any of that up and you risk losing the target customers.
By the time of this investor meeting, ordering the bulk of the chain's chickens from White Oak Pastures, as Doty had at one point considered, was already in question. Part of that is because, as he explained, pastured chicken "eats differently." The breasts are smaller and the bird, as a whole, can be a little bit tougher, with stronger ligaments and tendons. It also happens to have more flavor, more earthy depth and less watery blandness, than any other chicken on the market.
A chicken breast is usually regarded as a big, tender, juicy thing that doesn't have a lot of flavor, a direct result, of course, of the animal that lived before it became an entrée on a plate. The industry standard for broilers is the Cobb500, a trademarked bird that embodies decades of selective breeding and poultry research. The company that advertises the Cobb500 boasts the bird's attributes, including "lowest cost of live weight produced" and "best broiler uniformity for processing," while offering spreadsheets that show projected growth rates per day, down to the last gram. Those spreadsheets end at day 56, which is a week or two longer than most conventional broilers will ever live.
When they began raising chickens at White Oak, they tried a number of different breeds, including some of those trademarked birds. "It wasn't right," Jenni says. "They just laid down on the ground on their side. They didn't know how to scratch around. They didn't know how to be chickens." White Oak settled on a proprietary red-feathered breed that can hold its own on a pasture while taking about 12 weeks to get up to weight.
That points to the other big difference between chicken and beef. While grass-fed beef costs about 25-30 percent more than conventional beef, pastured poultry can run as much as 200 percent more than conventional chicken. There are dense, technical reasons for that cost, like the variables in feed conversion rates in different species, but the clearest reason is a simple one: Raising an animal for twice as long as your competitors is a very unusual business plan in the livestock market.
At the meeting, Doty was still undecided about what chicken to use at the chain. He mentioned briefly considering Springer Mountain Farms, a chicken brand located just north of Atlanta, before deciding against it. I wanted to know more about that decision-making process, but he didn't say much except that it didn't seem right. He told me he'd get back to me when he settled on a chicken.
Springer Mountain Farms is a brand some chefs brag about using in Atlanta restaurants. It's located very close to the city, closer even than White Oak Pastures. Its packaging advertises a list of all-natural practices, including "NO Antibiotics Ever," "All Vegetarian Diet," and "American Humane CERTIFIED."
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