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Musings on rotisserie chicken of yore

Looking back at what rotisserie chicken was, and what it's become

Rob Kaufelt was the owner of Murray's Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village, which he sold to Kroger Supermarkets. Today there are over 1,000 Murray's cheese shops across the land. Prior to that, he pioneered upscale supermarkets as President of Mayfair Supermarkets (Foodtown), and specialty foods at Kaufelt's Fancy Groceries. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children.

Rob, smaller.jpegIt's been a long time since I first installed a rotisserie machine in a supermarket. It was no surprise that over the years this item moved to number one on the deli hit parade. For the chicken contract at the chains, — and I recall discussing it with the head of Deli at Kroger once back then — this was his single most important buy: locking in the price for the year in order to make sure the retail was secure at store level.

I knew the supplier(s) were taking a beating too, but by then, I also worried about the chickens. So many chains have lesser quality, and the chickens are brined in salt water and preservatives, often with odd flavor options (at least to me, as I'm more in the same mold as my chef colleagues, e.g. David Chang, who recently went on a rant about Costco rotisserie chicken).

It was 1981, and we had got a single Stop and Shop in East Brunswick, N.J., when that chain left the market, and where my sister, a foodie if there ever was one, lived with her doctor husband and kids. As part of my job as president of Mayfair Foodtown, I was in charge of designing and building the first upscale store in that old store, the first upscale store in our market. 

I put in everything I could think of, things I had seen, like misters in the produce, and seafood on ice, and a chef, of course, (and cheese!) but one new feature was the rotisserie machine. There were none available to buy in the U.S., so I imported one from France, the old style with the chain that turned the drum (and chickens).

I had seen this first at Loblaws in Canada. On tour with their head buyer, he showed me a back-of-store niche that they'd converted to a roast chicken department, with a chef in a toque and a takeout feature. You could buy a whole, half or quarter chicken, which he chopped up in front of you with his cleaver, and in addition they had a deep fryer for fries if you wanted it as a meal. There was a long line at lunch, needless to say.

I never copied the fries part, and only much later added a hood and ansul system to every store I built or remodeled, but I'm sure that setup would help me with dinner here tonight, as my daughter loves roast chicken, mom's out of town, the boys are at boarding school, and I need to feed my daughter when she gets home from school. 

We have a roast chicken option right on our corner: Citarella (which was once Balducci's) makes one, and puts the chickens in a warming, self service fixture, but they cook them too early and let them sit and dry out in their plastic containers all day. Not great, though in a pinch it will do.

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