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Rotisserie Chicken Is Springing Up Everywhere : Food: KFC, El Pollo Loco, Kenny Rogers Roasters and Boston are vying for a piece of the growing market in O.C.


FOUNTAIN VALLEY — No chicken in its right mind would cross Brookhurst Street here to get to the other side--not with Boston Chicken, Kenny Rogers Roasters, Kentucky Fried Chicken and El Pollo Loco all perched there and crowing about their menus.

The sudden proliferation of roasted chicken restaurants at Brookhurst and Garfield Avenue in Fountain Valley--the newest, a Boston Chicken outlet, opens on Monday--is indicative of a boom nationwide as competitors race for a share in one of the restaurant industry's most rapidly growing segments.

"Rotisserie chicken is probably the hottest food category in restaurants and supermarkets," said Steve Provost, a vice president at Kentucky Fried Chicken, which controls about half of the $7-billion market for fried chicken. The PepsiCo subsidiary recently spent more than $100 million to introduce its Rotisserie Gold line at 5,000 stores nationwide.

But the competition is strong. Kenny Rogers Roasters, which takes its name from the country singer, is run by John Y. Brown Jr., a businessman and former Kentucky governor who three decades ago turned Kentucky Fried Chicken into a nationwide chain. And Boston Chicken, which set a Wall Street record when its stock began trading in 1992, boasts a management team top-heavy with executives who helped Blockbuster climb to the top of the video rental market.

The high-stakes game of chicken also has a strong West Coast connection. Irvine-based El Pollo Loco holds a good part of the Southern California market. And Anaheim-based CKE Restaurants Inc., which owns the Carl's Jr. hamburger chain, plans to open as many as 300 Boston Chicken franchise restaurants in Southern California.

Besides those, a host of other eateries also are clucking about their chicken dishes.

"It's just a great, healthy alternative," said Curtis Creek, marketing director at Polly's Tasty Foods & Pies, a Santa Fe Springs-based chain that serves rotisserie-style chicken from a restaurant at Adams Avenue and Brookhurst Street in Huntington Beach. "The high heat defats the meat but keeps the juice, which gives you great taste."

Great taste and the promise of less fat are an appealing combination. According to the National Restaurant Assn. in Washington, U.S. consumption per capita of chicken and turkey in 1990 for the first time matched those of beef.

Consumers still love finger-licking good fried chicken. But while restaurant orders for fried chicken grew at an annual rate of 2% from 1989 to 1993, orders for non-fried chicken grew at a whopping 13% rate.

Yet to be seen, KFC's Provost said, is "whether it's a fad or an enduring trend."

The chains don't pitch their chicken as health food. But they are responding to consumer demand by providing details about the nutritional makeup of their meals.

Boston Chicken offers easy-to-read charts that describe the nutritional value of its entrees. El Pollo Loco reports that one of its meals "contains 30% less fat and 20% less sodium than a comparable fried chicken meal." And menu boards at Kenny Rogers Roasters note that several entrees meet the fat, cholesterol and sodium guidelines of an independent company that rates restaurant food.

Fad or not, roasted chicken is definitely in favor now. KFC expects first-year sales of Rotisserie Gold to reach $750 million.

Boston Chicken, which now has 340 restaurants in 23 states, hopes to have 525 by year's end. The company, which reported $154 million in fiscal 1993 sales, hopes to open as many as 300 locations in Southern California through its franchise arrangement with the Carl's Jr. chain.

"We're excited because this is good, wholesome food--food that's relatively easy to replicate at many locations," said Kerry Coin, general manager of Anaheim-based CKE Restaurants' Boston Pacific Inc. subsidiary. "And it's almost the reverse of Carl's (traffic flow) because we do most of our business at dinner, while Carl's is heaviest at lunch."

A few blocks away from Boston Chicken's new restaurant is the first Orange County location for Kenny Rogers Roasters. The company, based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., plans to have 165 stores open in 31 states and five foreign markets by the end of this year, including locations in Corona, Northridge and Palm Desert. It is now readying stores in Santa Ana, Lakewood, Anaheim, Brea, Hemet, Simi Valley, Santa Barbara and Vallejo.

Rounding out the competition is El Pollo Loco, which offers flame-broiled chicken and Mexican-style food at 200 locations in California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas.

"We're going to compete head-to-head with Boston Chicken," said Ray Perry, El Pollo Loco's chief operating officer. "Our objective is to continue to grow in Southern California through company and franchise development."

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