Flying High: Fastest Growth in Chicken Concepts

by Ryan Ross, Contributing Editor

Of all the culinary options available to consumers nowadays, chicken is without a doubt the least sexy choice. Chicken is considered the “bland” option, the preferred food of people who don’t want a lot of flavor in their meals. This is unfair; after all, any food can be as bland or as flavorful as you make it (for proof, look no further than the steak on the menu at your local greasy spoon).

What’s more, you’re usually hard-pressed to find any variation in the way chicken is prepared at fast-casual restaurants. Sure, some of the spices might be a little different and there might be slight variations in taste, but overall, most fast-casual chicken has the same basic flavor.

There are a few fast-casual chicken chains that are trying to change things: not only do they take a different approach to the way they prepare their chicken, but they’re also working hard to shed the reputation of being “just another” chicken joint. One of the ways they do this is with unique approaches to preparation, but another is to try and expand the limits of how fast-casual chicken can taste.

Two fast-casual chicken brands in particular stand out, and it should be no surprise that they’re both based in Texas: Flyrite Chicken and Cowboy Chicken. Flyrite was founded in 2014, and they opened their second location last year. Cowboy Chicken was founded in 1981 by Phil Sanders; in the decades since they opened their first restaurant, Cowboy Chicken has expanded to 22 locations in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Alabama, Louisiana, with a new location in Atlanta coming soon.

To get an idea of what sets these two companies apart from the competition, we spoke with Quirino Silva (Director of Culinary Operations at Flyrite Chicken) and Sean Kennedy (President of Cowboy Chicken). Read on for their insights!

Foodable: What makes your restaurant different from mainstream chicken restaurants?

Quirino Silva: Our "clean" food approach to chicken sandwiches and quick service is what most sets us apart from other concepts, [along] with our unique ability to serve beer and wine in-house as well as through the drive-thru and [our] great architecture and design.

Sean Kennedy: Competition is certainly fierce out there and people are more discerning than ever! We aim to please that guest by serving great quality, all-natural chicken that is free from hormones or artificial ingredients. Our chicken is also fresh, never frozen, and we use a dry rub that marinates the chicken for 24 hours before it’s roasted over a wood-burning fire for about 2 hours. 

Our chicken simply tastes better- there's a lot of love that goes into our birds!

Foodable: How would you describe your motto or approach to new chicken dishes?

QS: Our guiding ethos is that we only use chicken that is Certified NAE (No Antibiotics Ever), vegetarian-fed and hormone-free. There is no high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats (hydrogenated oils), MSG, artificial flavors or preservatives in any item on our menu.

Freshness is paramount for all of our menu items- we use local produce and make all of our sauces, dressings and syrups from scratch.

SK: As the only protein we specialize in is chicken, we can keep our pricing stable, and we’ve truly become experts in procuring, preparing and serving the best chicken meals. This does mean we have to be creative in our approach with any new dishes, and the rotisserie chicken still has to be the star! For example, our Famous Chicken Enchiladas are made from all white meat rotisserie chicken, rolled by hand daily and topped with our signature tomatillo sour cream sauce.

Foodable: How have you seen the craft of preparing chicken evolve over the years?

QS: Preparing chicken has remained the same, but the quality of the ingredients has gone through several changes. Originally, small-restaurant businesses used to buy local and use fresh products, [but] as the industry evolved in the U.S. it became more automated and the small family-run farms were incorporated into larger agribusiness.

This led to lower cost and more efficiencies for restaurateurs, but also a degradation of quality. When cost became the driving factor, there was a race to the bottom in terms of cost and quality. Food additives were used to try and add more flavor, tenderness, shelf-life and stability; over the years, these additives were found to be detrimental to the average health of consumers.

In the last decade there has been a resurgent movement to return to the practices of buying local and focusing on quality again. Flyrite Chicken is proud to lead that movement in the quick service chicken sandwich market.

SK: Premade, heat-lamped food is out, while fresh and authentic are in. People are also looking for health-conscious options and steering away from fried foods. Our chicken is cooked over a wood burning fire and is much better for you as well as great-tasting!

Foodable: As new innovations in chicken dishes become more mainstream, how do you think restaurants like yours will continue to set themselves apart from the competition?

QS: Flyrite will continue to focus on quality and freshness, while balancing efficiency and cost to our guests. Our menu will continue to incorporate our ethos of “Feel-Good Fast Food,” and we have seen that our guests appreciate the “better bird option.”

Serving beer and wine in-house as well as in the drive-thru also helps to differentiate our concept, [and our] architectural design and modern aesthetics continue to elevate our guests' experience at Flyrite Chicken.

SK: We always strive to provide a tremendous value to our guests: through the product we serve, our "cowboy cool" atmosphere and the genuine hospitality we provide. It’s really the sum of all those parts that make up the Cowboy Chicken DNA and have allowed us to grow to 22 restaurants in 6 states- last year we sold over 3 million pounds of whole chickens! As we go into new markets, we know that it’s our high-quality chicken cooked over the wood-burning flame that really sets us apart.

With so many options available to fast-casual diners, chicken often gets overlooked. But with the new, innovative approaches to chicken employed by companies like Cowboy Chicken and Flyrite, one thing is for sure: chicken isn’t going to be overlooked for much longer.