Chicken producers have a lot to crow about when it comes to pizza toppings trends.

Chicken is low in fat and calories, yet high in taste and availability. Waist-watching customers can choose chicken to get a toothsome meat fix without some of the drawbacks of pork and beef toppings. And chicken also lends itself well to so many new sauces, flavors and seasonings winding up on pizzas today.

"Now everywhere you go, there's a chicken-topped pizza on the menu," said Richard Harper, product manager for Tyson Foods, in Springdale, Ark. "Chicken is a great medium for flavor, because it tastes good with almost any sauce."

He also attributes increased consumption of chicken in pizzerias to health concerns, especially among baby boomers and Generation Xers.

"Pork and beef can be very high in fat and calories (but) chicken isn't high in either," said Harper. "For people concerned about cholesterol levels, that's good news."

Parts Aren't Parts

No one could say when chicken toppings first entered the pizza market, but early on, said Harper, diced and formed parts were used. Today, however, he said, consumers are willing to pay "a bit more" for whole-muscle strips taken from the all-white-meat breast.

As to which chicken cuts work best on pizza, Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said dark meat may be the most suitable because it absorbs seasonings well. "But if you don't want much of a fat load," he added, "you'll go with the white meat."

Based in Washington, D.C., the NCC doesn't yet track chicken use in pizza outlets, but Lobb said use is rising in every foodservice segment. Liz Hertz, marketing manager at Burke Corporation, agreed, even though chicken accounts for less than 5 percent of the Nevada, Iowa company's meat toppings sales. Burke's line includes several chicken topping options, including garlic-flavored and fajita-seasoned strips, as well as diced and shredded pieces Hertz said go well with barbecue and Asian pizzas.

"Chicken provides an opportunity for pizza operators to introduce variety to their menus," she added. "It allows them to do something new and different and to have a signature dish."

"Chicken-topped pizza is very popular with our customer base," said Sean DeGregorio, CEO of Panago Pizza, a 152-store chain based in Vancouver, B.C. "While it's not as popular as pepperoni, it's definitely more than a niche market for us."

"Precooked chicken greatly reduces food safety issues. It gives the pizzeria operator peace of mind and is a reliable way to serve a safe product."

Liz Hertz
Burke Corporation

In terms of favorites, DeGregorio placed chicken toppings in the "middle of the pack," but he said that as much as 20 percent of the chain's bottom line is owed to fowl fare like its Chicken Club Pizza. Other popular offerings include a chicken pizza made with basil pesto, another with fajita strips, and another called the Super Taco, which offers a choice of chicken or beef.

"We began with only one chicken offering, and it's grown significantly over the last five years," said DeGregorio, who, like the others, said healthy eating trends are driving chicken sales.

Tim Kelly, owner of the Pizza Pit, in Iowa City, Iowa, said he puts chicken on his specialty pizzas simply because "customers asked for it. People want less fat and cholesterol in their diets, so we've seen a movement away from red meats. But people also want good taste, and chicken tastes good."

Kelly said he now uses about 13 pounds of chicken weekly on his BBQ, fajita and taco pizzas -- compared to just three pounds a week last year.

"Chicken has given us the ability to expand our menu," said Mark Negro, co-owner of Mangia Chicago Stuffed Pizza, a three-store outlet in Austin, Texas. "It gives our customers more of a choice and allows us to reach a different demographic."

The Power of Predictability

In an industry plagued by the unpredictability of cheese prices, poultry price stability has made chicken an attractive option for pizzeria operators. When too much is ordered it freezes well, and it's easily made into specials, such as sandwiches and pastas.

And while food safety is always a concern when handling raw chicken, a growing number of precooked and frozen chicken toppings products are on the market. To boot, fully cooked product is also less labor intensive.

"Precooked chicken greatly reduces food safety issues," said Hertz. "It gives the pizzeria operator peace of mind and is a reliable way to serve a safe product."

But not every pizza operator has warmed up to the frozen option. Negro still uses fresh chicken, but admits it can present problems.

"We're much more sensitive to proper food handling; we go the whole nine-yards," said Negro. At Mangia, fresh chicken is stored away from other perishables and cooks always use gloves when handling it. Fresh chicken "also is a little more expensive, but we do it because it tastes better and our integrity for taste is at stake."

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