Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Costco Chicken

Yesterday I did my monthly Costco run for coffee, fruit, yogurt and whatever else caught my eye.

As I walked out the door, the Significant Other yelled, "Remember to get a chicken!"

What he meant was one of those rotisserie chickens that Costco has been selling since 1995.  At our house, these are known as "roto-chickens."

After adding a roto-chicken to my cart, I hailed a Costco worker in the butcher department.

"How many of these do you sell every day?" I asked her.

"About 900," she said.

One store, one day -- 900 chickens!

Across the chain, I learned later, Costco sells 70,000 rotisserie chickens every day.  Annual sales of these just keep growing, from 50 million in 2011 to 80 million or more in 2015.


There are at least two things people like about Costco chickens. 

First is taste.  The roto-chickens are delicious, lightly seasoned, moist on the inside and golden brown on the outside -- nothing like the stringy, dried-out birds found at most local supermarkets.
        One reason for this is that roto-chickens don't sit in the warming display for too long.  Store employees pull chickens that haven't sold after two hours; the leftovers are chilled and then used in other Costco products:  rotisserie chicken soup, rotisserie chicken salad and rotisserie chicken Alfredo.  

Second is price.  At $4.99 apiece, the chickens are now loss leaders.  Company executives appear to believe, possibly based on market research, that chicken customers purchase many other items on each store visit, resulting in higher total sales at checkout. 


The Costco chicken also is the subject of lore.  Many, many online recipes offer ideas for incorporating roto-chicken in more complicated preparations.

I even read that Julia Child, the famed cookbook author, was a Costco chicken devotee.  I thought initially that this could not possibly be true.  But I was wrong.  An internet search turned up this bit from a Washington Post article in 2009.

       "She (Child) was not a snob about food," said her publicist. "I remember lunch one 
        day at her house: There was iceberg lettuce on the table, Hellmann's mayonnaise and 
        chicken. I said, 'This chicken is delicious,' " only to have Child reveal that it had come 
        from Costco. "She loved chicken and hot dogs from Costco."  
             (Costco has sold a hot dog/soda combo for $1.50 since the 1980s; I am not a tube
       steak fan and so have yet to sample this delicacy.  Still, if Julia Child liked them . . . .)

I myself learned about the chickens from a woman who herself learned about them by a friend who was an executive at Sur La Table, the high-end kitchen product retail chain.


Nineteen E-coli cases in several states last year were traced to Costco rotisserie chicken salad.  The culprit could have been the chicken or another ingredient in the salads.  The E-coli hasn't flared up again, and 19 stomach viruses is not many out of 80 million chickens sold.  On the other hand, if you were one of the people who got sick, you probably would take a different view.

Costco chicken critics complain that the chickens are not organic enough, and Costco has pledged to sell only antibiotic-free chickens by sometime in 2017.  Nutritionists (and I) go back and forth on this issue.  At this point, free-range, organic chicken constitutes a very tiny, very expensive portion of the U.S. market.   With time, perhaps, this will change.

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