America loves chicken tenders — especially when they’re battered and fried — but this year they cost quite a bit more than they have in years past.
The average price at major retail supermarkets for chicken tenders, a specialty cut of the bird’s breast meat, has risen from $4.76 per pound in November 2020 to $5.20 per pound this month, according to the Agriculture Department. The cost of a pound of organic chicken tenders went up by $1.51 over the same period.
Beyond home kitchens, supply chain issues related to chicken tenders have also hit restaurants. A&W, the root beer chain, canceled a chicken tender marketing deal this year because its supplier couldn’t deliver extra poultry stock to its restaurants. KFC said it struggled this year to obtain its normal supply of chicken, although a spokesperson said in an email that “supply of products, including chicken, has improved.”
Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, a popular chicken restaurant chain in Nashville, Tennessee, said the price for all parts of the chicken skyrocketed during the pandemic. The biggest pain for the chain, however, is its bestseller — the chicken tender.
“We acutely feel the pain right now on chicken tenders,” said Brian Morris, Hattie B’s vice president of culinary, learning and development. “And it’s tough. It’s kind of a three-layer sandwich, and none of the layers are delicious.”
Morris said the three layers are the rising market costs, which are at all-time highs; the increase in costs for shipping, plastic and packaging; and a lower-quality product. The company has noted, Morris said, that the chicken tenders it gets are increasingly inconsistent in size, which has led it to reject a lot of what it receives. That further limits its yield.
“We’re just taking it on the chin and hoping it gets better,” he said.
The main issue is in the supply chain, as meat processors struggle to hire and retain workers after their workforces suffered rampant illness and deaths at the height of the pandemic.
During Tyson’s earnings call with investors in August, the company’s CEO, Donnie King, said recruiting workers remained one of its biggest challenges. More recently, the company identified logistics expenses and the cost of ingredients and packing materials.
King said Tyson, one of the largest chicken producers in the world, has raised wages and is piloting new child care and medical facilities for its workers. It also aims to automate less attractive and more dangerous jobs that it has struggled to find employees for and then retrain some workers to oversee the process.
Tyson, which did not respond to a request for comment, and other meat processors have also tried to shore up its employees’ health and limit processing pitfalls by mandating vaccinations for their workers.
But a lingering problem for one segment of the industry is Tyson’s decision to change the rooster it used for breeding this year. It didn’t meet expectations and led to lower hatch rates among the company’s chickens, so the company has had to switch back to its former breeding rooster.
“We’re changing out the male [rooster] that, quite frankly, we made a bad decision on,” King said in an investors call in May. “And we will not be all the way right till, let’s call it, mid-year of ’22, but we will sequentially get better between now and then.”