Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Chicken Out Rotisseries adds free-farmed poultry to the menu

Chain adds to natural foods tradition with humanely raised product

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Diners chowing down at the Chicken Out Rotisseries in the region might not realize the chickens they are eating meet high standards for organic and humanely raised poultry.

The restaurant chain, based in Gaithersburg, with 20 locations in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., has teamed up with Springer Mountain Farms Chickens to provide free-farmed chickens to its customers. Free-farmed chickens certified by the American Humane Association are raised in controlled open-air living conditions, without antibiotics, chemical medicine antibiotic substitutes or hormones, and are not fed animal by-products, according to Chicken Out.

Going the natural route has been a core concept at Chicken Out since it was established in 1991 in Gaithersburg. The company has never used artificial additives, artificial preservatives or artificial flavor enhancers, said president and CEO Rick Hindin.

‘‘What makes us different is we make everything fresh from scratch everyday in each restaurant,” Hindin said. ‘‘Nobody in the fast food or fast casual category makes everything fresh from scratch except us.”

The restaurant also boasts zero trans fat.

‘‘We’ve always prided ourselves on selling all-natural products. But the opportunity to sell free-farmed chickens allowed us to go one step further and raise the bar on quality another step,” Hindin said. He also said the use of the free-farmed chickens will result in a slightly higher cost to consumers.

‘‘Service is always important, but the quality of the food is what a core group of customers is interested in,” he said.

The stores are all owned by Chicken Out, but ‘‘we are preparing our company to go into franchising,” Hindin said. He declined to disclose company revenues.

The company’s decision to use free-farmed chickens was a move in the right direction, according to Alfredo Polanco, manager of the Chicken Out in Bowie Town Center. ‘‘Customers love this chicken,” he said.

Signs posted in the restaurant inform consumers that the chicken they are eating is all-natural and raised without chemicals and hormones, Polanco said.

‘‘We’ve seen increases already in sales,” he said. ‘‘People like to eat healthy.”

The Humane Association also believes consumers care that animals are treated humanely, according to president and CEO Marie Belew Wheatley. ‘‘There are a growing number of producers that have decided there is value in reassuring consumers that the animals they are raising for food are raised humanely,” she said.

The Humane Association free-farmed certification was established in 2000. Since then 200 producers have qualified, which represents about 5 million animals, Wheatley said.

According to Gus Arrendale, president of Springer Mountain Farms in Mt. Airy, Ga., ‘‘A less-stressed chicken makes a better tasting chicken. [It] tastes more tender.” The company also supplies chickens to other chain restaurants, such as Panera Bread and Chipotle.

It is more expensive to manage a free-farm operation because there’s a higher cost for the chicken feed and total care of the chickens, Arrendale said, but ‘‘it’s a manageable cost that consumers can afford.”

Hindin said the chickens are slightly more expensive, and prices will increase by about 3 percent. But Chicken Out chickens will be no more expensive than others, since chicken prices are increasing because of ethanol production that relies on corn, he said.

Chickens and cattle that eat corn will go up in price, Hindin said.

The National Chicken Council, a Washington, D.C., trade association that represents the broiler chicken industry, also has a standard-setting certification programs for the way chickens are raised. But, regarding taste, Richard Lobb, spokesman for the council, said, ‘‘I don’t know of any correlation between these programs and taste.”

The chicken industry consists of vertically integrated companies that produce, process and market chickens and chicken products, with a value of wholesale shipments of around $25 billion and estimated retail value of $38 billion, according to the council.

Perdue Farms Inc. of Salisbury is the third largest chicken processor in the country and largest in the state, said spokeswoman Julie DeYoung. Although its farms are not certified as free-farmed, DeYoung said “Every aspect of Perdue’s live production is governed by Perdue's Poultry Welfare Program, which meets the standards of the National Chicken Council, and combines principles from the American Humane Association and our own experience over more than 85 years of raising poultry.“

This report originally appeared in The Business Gazette.