How chicken inspired an industry

Roasting rotisserie chicken. Photo by Peter Carr/lohud

Rotisserie sales will top $3.5 billion this year

As you stroll your supermarket’s prepared-food section, where you’ll find dozens of hot offerings ready to take home, tip your hat to the humble rotisserie chicken — and Blockbuster Video.

Rotisserie chicken was relatively big in the 1950s and into the ’60s in mom-and-pop delis and with home chefs, said Tom Super of the National Chicken Council.

“Consumers were reluctant to pay $2 plus for a cooked bird when they could buy a 29-cent-a-pound chicken for less than a dollar and spin it on a mechanism on their backyard grill or even in their kitchen ovens,” he said. “But fried chicken from KFC and others pushed rotisserie off the menu.”

Enter Boston Chicken in the 1980s, which grew into Boston Market. It was started by executives from Boston Chicken, Einstein’s Bagels and a few Blockbuster Video senior staffers who read the tea leaves and saw that video-rental days’ were numbered.

“It proved that nothing is new, only different and better.” — Tom Super, National Chicken Council

Rotisserie chicken at ShopRite in Tallman. Photo by Peter Carr/lohud

When they were ready to start building stores, they called retail expert Paco Underhill, who helped create the Boston Market phenomenon and saw it spread to supermarkets everywhere. Underhill is a fan of the spinning bird.

“Rotisserie chicken is a quick meal and it’s one of those things that, no matter where you sit on the healthy-eating spectrum — even my Muslim wife, who will only eat organic, grain-fed blah blah blah — this is an acceptable convenience purchase for them,” he said.

Boston Market showed supermarkets that rotisserie chicken could be popular and profitable. How profitable?

Sales of rotisserie chickens will exceed 1 billion this year, according to Super, the Chicken Council spokesman. Nearly 700 million of those birds will be sold in supermarkets. At $5 a pop, that’s $3.5 billion in sales.

“It was a bit of a game changer,” Super said. “It proved that nothing is new, only different and better. The big growth is over but some growth will continue, especially if the price point stays around $5.”

Home cooks often use the cooked birds as a recipe starter, with rotisserie chickens finding their way into quick stir fry or chicken enchiladas.

“At home, we make chicken tortilla soup using rotisserie chicken,” Super said.

The author

In more than 75 interviews over the past two months, Peter D. Kramer has learned a bit about supermarkets: how they’re designed and, most important, the key role they play in their customers’ lives. His own supermarket journey has been peripatetic, taking him from Waldbaum’s in Tappan to New Hampshire to New Mexico and now to New Jersey, where the father of four has learned to bring his own bags and scan his own groceries.

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