Grocery Store Fried Chicken Deserves Some Respect

We dive into how those birds get to the hot bar and rank our favorite spots to eat it

April 29, 2024 6:27 am
Hand holding fries chicken drumstick, on blue yellow background
She's a thing of beauty.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

No parent is a stranger to the joy of snacking alone while dissociating in a parking lot. It is through such an act that the mind rids itself of stress to focus on what’s in front of you. That’s how my love of grocery store chicken tenders was hatched — the result of a stress-induced fugue state binge on a snack that was grabbed out of equal parts desperation, exhaustion and hunger. 

Over the last 10 years, shoppers’ fascination with the supermarket hot bar has evolved into a thriving, pulsing relationship with benefits. From egg rolls, noodles and pitted olives to the fried, buffalo and barbecue chicken strips I love, the supermarket hot bar capitalizes on the beautiful synergy of choice and convenience. It’s where the entrees that typically have no business being together can rub elbows under the unassuming sneeze guard of a (sometimes literal) melting pot in the middle of the produce aisle. 

As a child, I was taught to avoid the hot bar — too unsanitary, too barbaric, an all-inclusive luxury resort for bacteria to do kinky stuff with other bacteria. When you’re older, the hot bar and all that resides within it evolves into a new role: an easy meal for exhausted people.

Don’t Fear the Chicken

To better understand where my beloved supermarket chicken comes from, I spoke with a chicken expert who works in food service sales for one of the world’s largest chicken processing and marketing corporations, directing millions of birds per week to independent restaurants, universities and grocery stores nationwide. Chances are incredibly high that you’ve eaten chicken from this company. As such, he asked that his real name not be used.

“We hatch the birds, we sell the live chicks to contract farmers, and then they raise them and then sell them back to us,” he says. “After we’re done producing, we distribute the produced material — we call it ‘material,’ which is really fucking silly – to our network throughout the United States.” 

This material takes the shape of cutlets, strips, drumsticks and whole rotisserie birds in your favorite fast-casual restaurants. Chicken is also delivered to supermarkets like Stop & Shop and Walmart, where they end up inside the frozen section or at the hot bar. Here’s a piping breaded nugget of truth: the fried chicken you pick up from your local Hannaford is likely the exact same chicken you order from KFC

“There’s a broad spectrum of products we make,” he says. “There are chicken tenderloins, which is a premium product because there are only two tenderloins per bird. We also make tender strips, which is breast meat that’s cut down to look like a tender. This is what usually goes to a hot bar.” 

Behind the scenes of the hot bar, most supermarkets have a kitchen staff that prepares these large bags of processed, seasoned, typically pre-cooked tenders, wings or nuggets. They’re thrown in a massive convection oven before they’re loaded into tubs under heat lamps. What goes into the hot bar typically comes down to what’s available, what’s trending and what needs to be sold. The biggest misconception when it comes to pre-cooked food from supermarkets is that it’s not very good.

“People think when you get food out, it’s probably better stuff than what you could buy in the market, but it’s the other way around,” he says. The chicken’s taste, texture and presentation are all results of corporate kitchen teams paid to develop new and exciting flavors utilizing the same methods as in-house culinary employees from KFC or Subway. 

We are a hungry nation built on a foundation of money, pride and pride in how we spend our money. My obsession with grocery store chicken — a supposedly “cheap” product — led me to conclude that chicken levels out the playing field. 

“I mean, it’s capitalism, right?,” he says. “We look at profit and accessibility to material and figure out what we can develop.” He brings up the famous pink goo that went viral a few years back. “We just developed new mini chicken bites that aren’t so much a byproduct product as they are something made with what we call ‘inexpensive materials’ — you know, bits, ends, pieces or whatever.”

We’re all playing the same game by eating the same chicken from the same farms in the same relative shape of a strip. That’s not to say there’s nowhere in the country to order chicken outside the distribution zone of major corporations. “In New England, most places still hand-bread their tenders,” he says. 

The biggest takeaway I got from him is that the hot bar should be seen as a concept of convenience, where high-quality food is put on display, (supposedly) changed often and prepared by people whose job depends on making your mouth happy. Capitalism has never tasted so good. 

Fried chicken thighs buffet bar self serve with tongs in grocery store, restaurant or catering event with crisp skin
The hot bar contains many splendors.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Best Grocery Store Fried Chicken Around the Country, Ranked

1. Publix, Pawley’s Island, SC

I came to Pawley’s Island for a wedding last year and was tasked with feeding my fellow groomsmen. My first trip to Publix presented me with two options: fried chicken or something not as good.

Crispiness: 10/10

Flavor: 10/10

Value: 10/10

2. Hannaford, Brunswick, ME

An unassuming Hannaford in a state with more than 60, this midcoast grocery store includes a hot bar stocked with chicken tenders that could carry a brick-and-mortar chicken shack to victory.  

Crispiness: 10/10

Flavor: 8/10

Value: 10/10

3. Sunac Fancy Food, New York, NY

I would come to Sunac during my short tenure at a famous beer company and gorge on BBQ chicken fingers to escape the crushing realities of my 9-to-5.

Crispiness: 8/10

Flavor: 8/10

Value: 7/10

4. Suffolk University Dining Hall, Boston, MA

I was a soft, sad little boy when I moved to Boston for college. Everyone told me to go easy on the dining hall food, except for the chicken tender wraps. Nine months and 10 pounds later, I was a changed man. 

Crispiness: 7/10

Flavor: 8/10

Value: 7/10

5. Safeway, Boulder, CO

A road trip took me out to Boulder back in 2009, but it was an early-morning stop at Safeway that stayed with me. You never forget your first breakfast chicken tenders. Maybe it was being 5,430 feet above sea level, but those crispy beige buddies took my breath away. 

Crispiness:  7/10

Flavor: 8/10

Value:  4/10


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