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Why Whole Foods Is Banking on Rotisserie Chicken

Meeting demand for the roasted bird is a key part of grocery store’s business

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A chicken for every pot.”

That’s the line the Republican party used in 1928 to promise Americans who voted for Herbert Hoover a time of ease and prosperity. Though the Great Depression derailed this vow, the party was onto something: Egalitarian and evocative, that phrase has stood for financial comfort and nutritional well-being for generations, ever since Henry IV used it in the 17th century. So it’s no surprise that Amazon’s Whole Foods is, at least in part, banking on chicken these days.

“I’d say it’s one of our top 20 top-selling items,” says Julia Obici, global executive coordinator of culinary and hospitality for Whole Foods.

When Amazon bought Whole Foods last summer, the first thing it did was lower the price of the grocer’s organic and hormone-free rotisserie chickens (among other items). The price dropped by as much as 33 percent in some markets, to between $7.99 and $9.99 per bird. The chickens not marked with an organic certification are priced even less, at around $6.99.

Those price cuts help ensure that today, Americans have a rotisserie chicken in every pot. As a recent Wall Street Journal story reported, grocery stores are selling a record number of spit-roasted chickens: 625 million in 2017 alone. Costco, a members-only big box warehouse chain, sells enough roasted chickens annually to invest $300 million in its own chicken processing plant, which as WSJ notes, “should be cheaper than buying ready-to-cook chickens from suppliers.”

The consumer demand for rotisserie chicken isn’t exactly new. Chains like A&P “always had chickens rotating on rotisseries in large commercial ovens with big glass windows,” writes B. Baker, an Eater reader who grew up in the 1960s and remembers that “customers would come in expressly to pick up a chicken for dinner; there were no Boston Markets, Costcos, or even (in our area) KFCs to purchase a prepared bird.”

But according to the Journal, it wasn’t until the ’90s that national chains like Costco and Whole Foods started buying birds specifically to put them on a spit and sell them for less than fresh broilers, turning rotisserie chicken into a lucrative loss leader. And, as previously reported, Whole Foods and its competitors are working hard to keep that price down, even as the price of raw chicken fluctuates.

Obici has been with Whole Foods for 22 years and says, in that time, the Austin, Texas-based grocer has always offered rotisserie chicken. “For years we served it pretty plain, with salt and pepper. But now customers want more variety,” she says. Whole Foods’ research and development kitchens roll out new flavors in a monthly rotation: Later this year, it’ll introduce a chicken spiced with “Turkish” flavors, as well as “a Nordic-style” bird. “We’re calling it ‘mushroom forager,’ so it will have a lot of those earthy flavors,” Obici says. “We’re also working on a miso-tamari version as well as one with Ethiopian berbere spice.”

At Whole Foods, the cooked birds are also sold on plates with vegetable sides, in bowls, and atop rice and noodles, in what Obici says is a growth area for the grocer. “We’ve expanded all of our offerings with meal solutions, with grab and go... they’re always among our top selling items.”

Obici declined to share precise sales numbers, but she acknowledges the rotiseerie chicken price drop “has drawn more attention to the product overall.” Demand seems to be rising. “Back 20 some years ago most people sat down and ate a rotisserie chicken with some sides,” Obici says. “Now, it’s not only for that single purpose. So many people are using [rotisserie chicken] to make other dishes.” Recently, a busy midtown Manhattan location was out of rotisserie chicken at 5:30 p.m. on a cold Sunday night — prime time for grab-and-go meal solutions.

So how do Whole Foods stores keep up with demand? Obici says it’s not a perfect science. “It’s some blend of sales history and employee experience. One great thing is we have a lot of knowledgable, long-standing employees who know to check the weather, check if it’s a holiday, that sort of thing.”

She also notes that stores get hourly sales reports, so they can see how fast any given product is moving and plan accordingly. “We utilize those reports to help us manage the volume that we have, but [rotisserie chicken is] such a great seller that sometimes what we struggle with more is making sure that we have all the pieces in place: getting it on and off the spit and packaged to the customer as fast as possible, in those key times just before the dinner rush,” Obici says.

“People don’t always know what they want when they come into the store, so it’s up to us to have that option ready to go.”