From free-range to cage-free to the latest term pasture-raised, there are plenty of poultry production practices a chef and/or restaurant owner can choose from.
When confronted with making that decision prior to opening his latest concept, Sam Marvin, chef and owner of Pluck restaurant in Carlsbad, knew his method of choice needed to be as humane as possible.
“I had been thinking often about factory-farmed chicken and fast food’s popularity, and how it is entirely possible to bring ethically sourced, pasture-raised chicken to everyone,” said Marvin, who opened San Diego’s latest chef-backed chicken restaurant, which uses all pasture-raised chickens, in early October and has 15 employees.
“There are so many chicken concepts with shady practices, so, I wanted to introduce a concept that is transparent about everything it does… It’s important for me and my team to respect the animals we use as food," he said. "The partners I work with raise happy and healthy birds with good lives, where they graze naturally and live as they would in the wild. Not only does that feel better on our consciences, chickens raised on natural diets taste better, too."
For clarification purposes, a caged hen is confined to cages that are 67-square inches big; cage-free means the birds get less than one square foot within the confinement of a barn and kept on a soy and corn diet; free-range means each chicken is allotted less than two square feet, don’t get outside very often and mostly eat corn and soy; and then there’s pasture-raised.
“These ladies are given at least 108 square feet each and consume some feed and lots of grass, bugs, worms and anything else they can find in the dirt,” reads a 2016 article on the Certified Humane website. “They tend to be let out of the barns early in the morning and called back in before nightfall.”
Despite these definitions, Marvin said there are close to no legal guidelines or ramifications when it comes to labeling something “free-range” or “humanely raised.” A chicken could be designated “free-range” and only have 2-feet-by-2-feet in a little corner to roam, he said. “Or, they can be given a small space to squeeze through to the outdoors, though they’re kept inside close to 24 hours.”
108 Square Feet
With pasture-raised chicken, each chicken is guaranteed 108 square feet to themselves (1,000 birds per 2.5 acres), Marvin said. If at least 108 square feet isn’t available per chicken, the farm isn’t legally able to use that classification, he said.
Marvin, who self-funded Pluck with two partners, said, surprisingly, using pasture-raised chickens isn’t too expensive, especially compared to the prices of other proteins.
Still, Pluck’s guarantee of pasture-raised chickens cost about 300% to 400% more than if the restaurant used factory farmed products, he said. To make up for it, Marvin said prices at Pluck are slightly higher than typical drive-through locations.
For example, its rotisserie chicken is $9 and currently a customer favorite, he said. The Southern fried chicken sandwich with Pluck’s housemade hot sauce is another top-seller, said Marvin.
Social Media, Merchandise
To spread the pasture-raised word, Marvin said he uses social media as well as word-of-mouth. He said all the Pluck employees are trained to educate customers about what pasture-raised means and that Pluck visitors are usually extremely appreciative of the restaurant’s efforts.
He added that Pluck also sells merchandise and other items with catchphrases like “Say No to Crappy Chicken” and “Give a Pluck!” to remind customers in a cheeky way of what the brand stands for and is about.
Currently, Pluck sees about 700 customers a week, according to Marvin, who predicts that number will go up to 2,500-3,000 a week in coming months. He said he is currently looking at other locations, which he hopes could open sometime next year.