A Bird of a Different Feather

August 2007
Ron Joyce is in love with a French chick.

The Poulet Rouge de Fermier du Piedmont, that is—the red farm chicken of the Piedmont region of North Carolina. It's shaped differently than the standard chicken, with a long breast, a high keel bone, and long legs. It tastes different, too, with a pronounced chickeny flavor and firmer meat. And in the chicken house, it looks different. It has auburn feathers and a featherless neck, covered with pink skin. Those in the know refer to the breed as the Naked Neck.

Joyce owns Joyce Foods, a chicken-processing business started by his family in 1962. In the beginning, Joyce Foods worked with fast-food restaurants. But along the way, Joyce became a fan of chickens. "Believe it or not, I'm a bird lover," he says. In 1995, Joyce Foods added free-range chicken from Ashley Farms to its line. But a few years ago, Joyce began to question the true meaning of terms such as free-range and organic. Then he read a research paper about old-breed chickens. It pointed out that if you start with a standard commercial chicken, raise it without antibiotics, and allow it to go outside, you still won't get a better chicken. "It said, 'You've got to start with an old breed.' I thought, whoa—that makes a lot of sense."

So Joyce found France's Label Rouge program, which sets standards for certain foods, including chicken. Working with Hubbard Europe, a breeder of slow-growth chickens that meet Label Rouge guidelines, he settled on the Poulet Rouge. It grows to market size in 77 days, compared with 42 days for a standard chicken.

To meet Label Rouge requirements, Joyce needed smaller chicken houses that hadn't been modernized to prevent the birds from going outside, and he needed experienced farmers who knew how to raise old-breed chickens. He found what he was looking for in Chatham County, east of Winston-Salem. And because the Poulet Rouge has a thin skin, it is processed by hand. Joyce found men who had worked in the poultry business back in the 1950s to train his workers at Joyce Foods.

Since Joyce introduced his Poulet Rouge in 2005, chefs from New York City to Charleston have become customers. Doug Psaltis, of Country, in New York, calls it fantastic chicken. "The meat has tremendous flavor, the breast is so soft and white, and the legs are juicy," he says. Joyce moved into retail in the spring, placing whole fresh chickens in ten Lowes Food stores in North Carolina. The chicken is also available by mail order at joycefoods.com. "We have a lot of money in this, a lot of time," Joyce says. "But more and more Americans want an old breed. We need to eat better."

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