Cost of Living

Why prepared rotisserie chickens are cheaper than ones you cook yourself

A professor of poultry, a food economist and a grocery store insider explain why a pre-cooked, rotisserie chicken from the supermarket deli is typically cheaper than buying a raw, whole bird from the meat cooler in the butcher's department.

Pre-cooked poultry often a bargain compared to buying raw at the same store

Rotisserie chickens from a Costco warehouse in Calgary cost $7.99 a cluck. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Walk into almost any Canadian grocery store and you smell it. Delicious, juicy, rotisserie chicken. 

It's just sitting there, like a beacon, promising shoppers a hearty meal they don't have to cook or clean up after.

The pre-cooked birds are priced between $8 to $12 at larger grocery chains in Canada, but barring a sale in the meat department, raw chickens can often cost more per bird at those same grocery outlets.

The lower price of rotisserie chickens compared to raw at many stores is despite the additional cost of spices, packaging, labour and energy for the convenient meal.

One of the reasons uncooked chickens at grocery stories, like the ones pictured at this Independent store in Yellowknife, cost more than rotisserie chickens is they're typically larger, according to Rowe Farms. (Shannon Scott/CBC)

So, what the peck is going on? CBC Radio's The Cost of Living dove into the henhouse to find out.

Yes, size matters — even for chickens

Major Canadian chains, including Loblaws, Sobeys, Save-On-Foods, Costco and Metro declined to comment on pricing strategies for their chickens. 

However, Rowe Farms, a smaller grocery chain based in Ontario, agreed to share some inside information. It's been selling rotisserie chickens since 2008.

According to Rowe Farms, it might look like you're paying less for a cooked bird, but you're usually getting a smaller chicken. Raw birds in the cooler section usually weigh between 1.6 and 1.8 kilograms, while chickens destined for the rotisserie spit are about 1.2 kg.

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Roasted chickens need to be around the same size to cook evenly on a grocery rotisserie, according to the University of Arksansas' Casey Owens. She's a professor of poultry (yes, that's a thing).

Casey Owens, professor of poultry at the University of Arkansas, said on average rotisserie chickens are smaller than raw counterparts at the same grocery store to make it easier to cook them consistently. (Submitted by Casey Owens)

"If they [grocery stores] get a carcass or chicken that's a little bit larger than that, it may not reach that temperature in the the right amount of time. So it's going to be very important that those chickens that they're rotissering are very uniform in size for food safety purposes," said Owens, whose official title is professor of poultry science.

Rotisserie chickens are typically advertised with an average weight of 900 grams of cooked meat per chicken.

The chicken experience at Costco

However even if smaller, a grocery store rotisserie can still be cheaper — by weight — than an uncooked chicken.

As an example, Cost of Living picked up a cooked cluck at a Calgary Costco.

The rotisserie chicken was priced at $7.99. After removing its plastic packaging and ties, the prepared poultry was weighed on a kitchen scale. 

The roasted rotisserie chicken from Costco weighed 1.35 kg. As poultry shrinks when cooked, to calculate the pre-roasting raw weight of this bird 25 per cent was added to that weight. This meant a theoretical pre-rotisserie weight of 1.64 kg for the example bird purchased at Costco.

These raw chickens are sold for $6.49 per kilogram at Costco Wholesale in Calgary. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

At $7.99 for 1.64 kg, the rotisserie bird would be priced at $4.88 per kilogram.

This compares to $6.49 per kilogram for a raw, whole chicken at the same store.

Buying a whole uncooked chicken at Costco will cost you 33 per cent more per kilogram than buying a rotisserie chicken from the same outlet.

Losing money on a clucking good deal

One reason why Costco, and other retailers, can offer a discount on rotisserie chickens they've prepared in store is because they sell a lot of them.

Costco alone said it sold 106 million rotisserie chickens globally in the 2021 fiscal year. The company sells so many, it's been reported the warehouse giant has built its own processing plants to help maintain a steady supply of bird.

In 2020, Costco sold 101 million rotisserie chickens globally. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Retailers are also offering a product popular with consumers. According to poultry producers, chicken has been the most consumed meat in Canada, as well as the United States, for years.

Rotisserie chickens are also a loss leader according to retailers such as Rowe Farms. This means grocers actually lose money on them, and sell them below cost as a way to get customers into stores to ostensibly buy more items.


LISTEN | A good meal for a good price: hear the secrets of the deli rotisserie chicken 


"Our rotisserie chickens are priced the way they are as a convenience to our members. An oven roasted chicken is a fast and easy dinner option, and our members are likely going to fill their baskets with other items while they are buying a chicken," wrote Barb Munro, corporate communications adviser for Calgary Co-op, in an email to Cost of Living.

"It's a win-win for our members and our stores."

I don't have time to go home and rotisserie a chicken … but it's very easy for me to go to my local grocery store, pick one up."- Casey Owens, Professor of Poultry Science at the University of Arkansas

Experts say grocery stores also rely on knowing customer behaviour and needs, such as wanting to save time.

"When people are under time stress, they take a lot of mental shortcuts. And they often do not do price comparisons," said Andreas Boecker, a food economist at the University of Guelph.

Andreas Boecker is a professor and chair of the department of food, agricultural and resource economics at the University of Guelph. (Submitted)

"So that leaves the opportunity for the retailer. They can even design the store in a way that after you pick the rotisserie chicken, you see other items in the store and things that are complementary to it."

Potentially that means customers get a deal on a rotisserie chicken, but end up buying side dishes which aren't as good of a deal.

Think of grabbing the tray of mashed potatoes priced at double the cost of making it at home — but a customer grabs them, along with the cheap chicken, to save time.

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"That's the other aspect. Do you love to cook and do you want to do it?" asked poultry professor Casey Owens, who said she can't remember the last time she roasted a chicken.

Chickens are priceless to experts like poultry professor Casey Owens; $7.99 to everyone else shopping at this Calgary Costco warehouse. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"I'm a mom of two kids, 11 and 13. I don't have time to go home and rotisserie a chicken. Between baseball and soccer schedules. I don't have the time, but it's very easy for me to go to my local grocery store, pick one up, spend $5 or $6 (US) and have a good meal."

And that's what, according to Owens, makes the rotisserie chicken — kind of priceless.


Click here to listen to this segment or download the Cost of Living podcast.

The Cost of Living airs every week on CBC Radio One, Sundays at 12:00 p.m. (12:30 NT).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Danielle Nerman

Producer, Cost of Living on CBC Radio

Danielle Nerman is an award-winning CBC Radio story producer. She has spent nearly two decades working as a journalist in Canada, China, Japan and Mongolia.

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