Chicken, long a favorite protein among restaurant customers, is being used by restaurants this spring and summer in traditional dishes such as salad and sandwiches, as well as in less predictable menu items such as pizza.

Not too long ago, chicken was a nonstarter on pizza, as most customers preferred traditional meat toppings such as sausage or pepperoni. A notable exception was California Pizza Kitchen, which introduced BBQ Chicken Pizza in the 1980s. It has remained one of the chain’s best-selling pizzas ever since.

Now, a growing number of restaurants are gaining traction with nontraditional pizza toppings, including chicken. One third of chains that have chicken on their menu offer chicken pizza, restaurant research firm Food Genius reports.

Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar added a line of thin-crust pizza for the summer, including a Chicken Peppadew Thin Crust Pizza, topped with diced grilled chicken, manchego cheese, peppadew peppers, grilled onion and crushed red pepper on lemon butter and garlic for $10 to $11, depending on location.

Hungry Howie’s, based in Madison Heights, Mich., has added several new chicken pizzas as permanent additions. Its new BBQ Chicken Pizza has grilled chicken breast, bacon, red onion and mozzarella cheese, and is priced at $9 to $18, depending on the size of the pizza. Its new Asian Chicken Pizza, topped with grilled chicken breast, red onions, green peppers, sesame seeds, mozzarella cheese and a tangy teriyaki-like sauce, is also $9 to $18. The Buffalo Chicken Pizza has grilled breast, red onion, mozzarella and buffalo sauce, and is $8 to $17.

Chicken is available at almost every chain restaurant in the country, Food Genius reports. Ninety-seven percent of all chains with average entrée prices under $20 have chicken somewhere on the menu. In fact, chicken is on 20 percent of all menu items available at those restaurants.

The vast majority of those restaurants — 85 percent — have some kind of chicken salad on the menu, and 78 percent have chicken sandwiches.

Wendy’s added a salad featuring strawberries and chicken as a limited-time offer for the late spring and early summer. The Strawberry Fields Chicken Salad is made with the chain’s nine-leaf lettuce mix, strawberries, applewood smoked bacon, crumbled blue cheese, honey roasted sunflower seeds and apple balsamic vinaigrette, at a suggested price of $4.49 for a half-sized salad and $6.49 for the full size.

Newk’s Eatery, a 69-unit chain based in Jackson, Miss., has added three chicken salads, available through the end of August. The Red, White and Blueberry salad is spinach topped with grilled chicken, strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, pecans and feta, tossed in fat-free raspberry vinaigrette, for $9.99. The Triple Take, priced at $6.95, is chicken salad, pasta salad and fruit salad, on a bed of mixed greens. The Southern salad, priced at $7.25, is mixed greens topped with chicken salad, grape tomatoes, croutons and a choice of dressing.

Chicken often is used in lower-calorie items, and appears in every item in On The Border’s new Border Smart reduced-calorie menu.

Dunkin’ Donuts also uses chicken for its new lower-calorie Grilled Chicken Flatbread sandwich, with ancho chipotle sauce and reduced-fat Cheddar cheese on multigrain flatbread, for $3.99.

Restaurants are using chicken in more indulgent items, too, such as Dave & Buster’s new Maker’s Mark Wings, eight chicken wings tossed in sweet and smoky bourbon barbecue sauce. The item is available with bone-in or boneless wings, for $10.79 to $12.79, depending on location.

Sister quick-service chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s recently upgraded their chicken sandwiches, previously made with two Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders. The new Big Chicken Fillet Sandwich is made with a five-ounce chicken breast fillet seasoned in Southern spices, breaded and served on a fresh-baked bun, and served with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, for $3.99. The Bacon Swiss Big Chicken Fillet Sandwich is the same sandwich with two strips of bacon, Swiss cheese and a choice of ranch dressing or mayonnaise, for $4.99.

Brad Haley, chief marketing officer at parent company CKE Inc., said the new sandwich, the largest chicken sandwich available at any major quick-service chain, intends to satisfy the appetites of the chains’ target demographic of young men with hearty appetites.

Although the Hand Breaded Chicken Tender Sandwich performed well, “I think the consumer limitation on that product was that it wasn’t enough to fill people up,” Haley said.

Popeyes also highlights chicken as an indulgent item, bringing back Chicken Waffle Tenders, what it says is its most successful limited-time offer ever. First introduced last year, the item is made with marinated chicken breast strips dipped in waffle batter, fried and served with honey maple dipping sauce, fries and a biscuit, for $4.99. The item is available through June 29.

Contact Bret Thorn at
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary