With beef prices soaring and the segment nearly flooded with “better burger” concepts, more restaurant operators are giving chicken a closer look.  The limited-service chicken category increased last year by 4.6 percent to $17.1 billion, with strong growth from Chick-Fil-A growing past KFC into the top position as the largest chicken chain, according to a report from FastCasual.com. Within the fast casual segment, Zaxby is leading the pack and recently crossed the $1 billion sales threshold.

Arkansas-based Slim Chickens plans to eventually top the “better chicken” list, which includes, among others,  El Pollo Loco, Boston Market, Wingstop, and Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers.  Slim Chickens founders Greg Smart and Tom Gordon recently launched a franchising initiative in order to grow their 13 units to 20 brick-and-mortar locations by the end of the year and plan to hit 600 by 2025.  “We have been in the midst of a ‘healthier lifestyle’ movement for quite some time now, and it’s very apparent that consumers care about where their food comes from and how it will affect their health,” said Gordon.  “There’s plenty of chicken places out there, but ‘better chicken’ is all about getting back to the basics with a fresh, quality product,” he said.

Focusing on chicken only, Slim Chickens, which has seen double-digit comp sales growth for the past three years, allows guests to order fresh chicken tender of chicken wing meals paired with their choice of eight handmade dipping sauces or eight handmade wing sauces.

Smart and Gordon recently brought on franchise industry veteran Sam Rothschild, former COO of Hooters of America and senior vice president of operations for Applebee’s Service Inc to help the company spread its wings.  The chain, which is concentrating on Midwest and Texas expansion, already has franchise agreements in Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas.  The team is also negotiating deals in Tennessee, Iowa, and Louisiana.  “The better burger segment has had its heyday,” Smart said.