Portuguese barbecued chicken restaurants in Toronto are struggling with a supply shortage of the younger, smaller chickens they cook on charcoal barbecues or rotisserie spits.
“Where is all the chicken?” asks Guiherme Salera of the Portuguese Chicken Guys, a downtown restaurant. “We are calling all our suppliers, scrambling.”
The eateries, called churrasqueiras (a Portuguese word that translates to barbecue restaurant), have over the decades become a popular dining option in Toronto; dozens of the family-owned shops thrive across the city and the suburbs. But several restaurateurs say that for the past few months they have been unable to find the 1.1-kilogram chickens that taste the best.
At its heart, their beef seems to result from a clash between taste and efficiency.
Canadian farmers prefer to raise heavier chickens, because they get paid by weight. Abattoirs have set up their shackle lines — where workers slaughter, defeather, eviscerate and chill the chickens — to process the bigger birds. It takes about as much time to process a small bird as a big bird.
The restaurants, however, have equipment designed for smaller birds, and a business model based on price: $12 to $13 for a whole roast chicken. Lightweight chickens cook more quickly and taste better, the restaurants say. Sea salt and other seasonings can fully penetrate from the skin into the meat. It’s a preference, the way some people prefer veal to beef.
“The younger bird is more tender, more juicy,” said Eugene Antunes, who founded Churrasco St. Lawrence, a fixture since 1989 in the famed St. Lawrence market. “You buy an older bird, it’s been around. It has tougher, fatter meat. If it is a very big bird, it will singe before it cooks properly.”
Antunes said his suppliers have warned him of coming shortages of small birds. He is gathering signatures on a petition directed at the Chicken Farmers of Ontario to keep the 1.1-kilogram chickens coming.
The petition notes, “because we’re a BBQ house a larger bird is of no value to us because it won’t cook the same way.”
The Chicken Farmers of Ontario did not return repeated calls requesting comment.
Frank Sardinha, owner of Churrasqueira do Sardinha, buys chicken from Maple Leaf Foods Inc. A box of 20 chickens “used to come in 21-23 kilos,” he said. “Now the cases weigh 24-25 kilos. The bigger birds don’t taste as good, but I gotta take them. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
Salerna added that when restaurants buy older birds, they have to cut up to 200 grams of fat from their thighs and neck before roasting them — wasted weight for which the restaurants have to pay.
Mike Dungate, executive director of the Chicken Farmers of Canada, insists the push for larger chickens does not come from his organization, which tells each province, each year, how many kilograms of chicken they can raise, but not the size of each fowl.
“All we do is set the volume of chicken you can grow,” he said. “We do not care what size of chicken they grow.”
Even so, the rules dictate that farmers must raise chickens on an eight-week cycle in Ontario; if a farmer sends a younger chicken to slaughter, his barn sits empty longer until the next batch of chicks arrive. (Manitoba is on a seven-week cycle, so Manitoba chickens tend to be smaller, Dungate said.)
Told that restaurants seek 1.1-kilogram chickens for their superior flavour, Dungate burst into laughter. “I’m not quite sure on that one,” he said. “That’s a very small bird.”
Chicken processors prefer bigger birds because they earn more profit, said Robin Horel, chief executive of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processing Council. He said the birds are not older, but simply grow more quickly than they did in the past.
“Birds have been getting bigger in the U.S. and Canada,” he said. “It’s more financially beneficial for farmers to grow a bigger bird, and more profitable for processors. The genetics of chicken make it more financially advantageous. And restaurants buy bigger birds because it’s cheaper for them.”
Indeed, Kentucky Fried Chicken Canada Co. confirmed that some of its restaurants now source bigger chickens, and slice the birds into more pieces before they put them in the fryer.
“In response to changes in sustainable farming practices, KFC suppliers in some parts of the country are sourcing larger, meatier chickens from Canadian farms,” the company said in an emailed statement. “In these locations, some pieces may look different due to a new way of cutting the chicken.”
Chicken is a fast-growing source of protein. In 1975, the average Canadian ate 13 kilograms of chicken and 47.4 kilograms of beef. Last year, each Canadian ate 32.5 kilos of chicken and 25 kilos of beef, according to Statistics Canada.
To supply the market, farmers have doubled production since 1990 to more than 1.1 billion kilograms of chicken raised last year. Chicken Farmers of Canada data also confirm a gradual increase in the size of the average live chicken, from two kilograms in 1990 to 2.3 last year.
Some in the industry say chicken kill facilities are working to squeeze smaller chickens out of the marketplace. Ontario rules make the small bird shortage worse, they say.
Most provinces have “open sign-up,” which means a farmer and an abattoir can agree to work together. In Ontario, the chicken farmers since 2011 have decided which plants will get chicken supplies.
Still, if some restaurants prefer a smaller chicken, why won’t their suppliers provide it?
Chris Hobbs, vice-president at ADP Direct Poultry in Toronto, has been wrestling with this question for months. His company buys chickens from abattoirs and further processes the meat for restaurants and grocery stores. They are a main supplier to churrasqueira.
“If you pull small birds from the market, people will be forced to adapt to a bigger bird,” Hobbs said. “This is not a consumer-driven change. Right now, it’s a bit like 1980s Russia: you can get any car you want as long as it’s a black Lada.”
In a three-page letter in May to the Chicken Farmers of Ontario, Hobbs asked for permission to directly buy smaller chickens from farms. The association has now agreed to meet him in August.
Paul Wideman is in a similar predicament. Wideman, whose family has worked for many years in the animal feed business, teamed up with investors three years ago to buy a decommissioned abattoir in Dundalk, about 100 km northwest of Toronto.
Wideman said his group invested $1 million to certify the plant, Conscious Living Cuisine Processing Ltd., with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and he wants to slaughter younger, smaller chickens for the specialty market.
So far, however, his plant has only slaughtered ducks, geese and guinea fowl, because the plant has not been granted plant supply quota from the Chicken Farmers of Ontario.
“We really didn’t think we’d have this much trouble convincing the powers that be to send us some chicken,” Wideman said. “It’s been delay, delay, delay.”
Supply management may have brought stability to Canada’s agricultural industry, he said, “but when you ask for something outside the mainstream (such as a smaller chicken), it all falls apart. The system no longer serves the many and diverse ethnic communities of Ontario.”
Back at St. Lawrence Market, Antunes said he owns a farm, and raises chickens for his own family meals. The rules, however, forbid him from raising chickens for his own restaurant.
“We want to sell chicken,” he said. “We could grow our own, but they won’t let us, and they won’t give us what we want, so what are we to do?”