The Chicken Story (So Far)

Karen Plourde, Weavers Way Communications Staff

Meat-eating shoppers may have noticed a disturbance on the poultry side earlier this year. That’s because the meat-and-seafood managers in all three stores were experiencing shortages and quality problems with some items from Bell & Evans of Lebanon County, our longtime source of naturally raised chicken. 

“With the tray packs, I was just having the hardest time getting them in,” said Adam Sirine of the Ambler store. “It was really frustrating.” In addition, the quality of the chicken tenders the stores got was below a sellable standard — so much so that they often were sent back at delivery time. “This year, [Bell & Evans] put in new cutting machines, and they were massacring the tenders and boneless breasts and things like that,” said Dale Kinley, longtime Mt. Airy meat and seafood manager. “It got to a point where they weren’t really available.”

Along with the new machinery, Bell & Evans also instituted Cryovac-sealed airtight packaging. The gas used in the sealing process lingers on the chicken, and when they opened the packages, some customers thought the meat had gone bad. Dale has tried to put the packages out prior to replenishing the case to allow the odor to dissipate, with mixed results. 

The meat managers have taken different courses of action in response to these issues. Ron Moore, Chestnut Hill meat and seafood manager, still carries Bell & Evans, but has stopped carrying tenders altogether. He also brought in Smart Chicken boneless and skinless breasts and thighs, produced by Tecumseh Poultry of Waverly, NE. As with Bell & Evans, their birds are humanely raised, with no antibiotics or growth stimulants, and the chicken products are air-chilled. Smart Chicken’s price point is higher, and they were recently acquired by Tyson, but there’s a dollar-off coupon good through the end of September. Ron has also added D’Artagnan (Union, NJ) organic whole chickens, boneless breasts and chicken parts.

Ambler carries Bell & Evans with the exception of the tenders. In their place, Adam brought in Mary’s tenders, from California’s San Joaquin Valley. They’re also air-chilled and the birds live the free-range life. Mt. Airy also brings in Mary’s tenders if Bell & Evans aren’t available. 

Adam has been impressed with the quality of Mary’s chicken, but many customers have told him they prefer locally-raised poultry. “I think it’s absolutely fantastic chicken, personally, but the customers weren’t buying it. . . . I think the fact that Mary’s was coming from California was really upsetting them.”

(Meanwhile, if you’re counting, all three stores carry Empire Kosher chicken, from Juniata County, for shoppers who prefer that option.)

For her part, Dale is committed to working with Bell & Evans while they straighten out their production issues. “I believe in their product, and I’ve been working with the company for so long,” she said. “And they’ve been a good company.”