Scarce supplies and rising costs of chicken breasts and wings mean restaurants are adding thighs and other dark poultry to menus and appetizers.
For a long time overshadowed by more sought-after and more profitable products such as breasts and tenders, less popular portions such as thighs and legs have been geared towards export markets and less well-known venues for years. Amid a national supply crisis that doubled breast meat prices in 2021, pushed wing markets to record levels, and made both suppliers tight, thighs have a new appeal for meat companies and restaurant operators.
Poultry producer Perdue Farms Inc. saw sales of boneless thighs increase 15% and sales of minced chicken, which is primarily red meat, increased 20% in 2021, the company said.
“That demand was spectacular,” said Mark McKay, President of Fresh Poultry and Meat for the Salisbury, Maryland company.
Products like thighs have two advantages for restaurants struggling with high costs and scarce supply of breasts and tenders: They’re cheaper and easier to come by, industry officials said. Boneless skinless chicken breast, the flagship product of the poultry industry, was below $ 1 a pound as of the end of December 2020. Now it’s more than $ 2 a pound, according to market research firm Urner Barry. Thighs cost about 54 cents a pound, according to the company, compared to 26 cents the previous year.
Mention of thighs is becoming increasingly common on US menus, although it is rare. According to industry research firm Technomic Inc., about 2% of US menus contain chicken legs. In comparison, 42% of the menus list traditional chicken wings.
At Wing It On !, a 10-unit chain specializing in chicken, executives developed a plan to diversify the poultry supply in the face of rising prices. Chief Executive Matt Ensero said he realized that while the wings were in high demand among restaurants, vendors still had the rest of the bird to sell, making his account less attractive than other restaurant owners who bought more pieces of the chicken.
âThink about the bird’s anatomy, and the wing itself is only 10% made up. That leaves 90% of the birds that producers need to find homes for, âsaid Ensero, who estimated that his chicken prices will have increased by more than 200% from spring 2020.
At the end of 2020, said Ensero, he approached his suppliers with a âwhole bird strategyâ. He would find ways to serve more portions of the chicken if they gave him better conditions. They agreed, and Mr. Ensero began selling “thigh wings” last spring in addition to the chain’s traditional offerings.
Customer demand was a trickle to start with and Mr Ensero said he often gave the item away to get his customers to try it out. Wing it up! advertise the new products at a cheaper price than traditional wings, even though they had more than double the meat.
About seven months later, the national Wingstop chain Inc.
launched a “Thighstop” brand that focuses on chicken leg products. The chain hired rapper and Wingstop restaurant owner Rick Ross to promote the dark meat alternative and tweeted a photo of Mr. Ross reading a newspaper headlined “Wing Shortage.”
“We also believe we can make thighs the center of the plate,” CEO Charlie Morrison told investors in November.
Ensero-san said the Wing It On! has risen 40% after Wingstop’s foray into the thighs. Wing it up! Also sells white meat tenders and “nuggz”, and Mr. Ensero said the chain now buys almost every part of the chicken except the legs.
Fast-casual chains like Modern Market Eatery and Just Salad started adding thighs to their menus in late 2020, presenting the products as something different and tastier.
“Chicken legs are all about taste,” says Nick Kenner, CEO of Just Salad. He said more customers are now choosing the product than the New York City-based chain’s chicken breast offerings.
Chicken suppliers are preparing to sell more thighs and other dark meat products to U.S. restaurants and grocery stores, executives said. Tyson Foods Inc.
CEO Donnie King said in August that demand for the Arkansas-based meat giant’s boneless dark chicken products is growing. The company recently announced that it would expand its automation capabilities for boning dark meat products.
The increased use of thigh and boneless dark meat cuts offers catering establishments an alternative to wings and breast meat, a Tyson spokesman said.
Perdue’s Mr McKay said that as more and more people began to cook from home during the pandemic, thighs and other dark poultry meat became more attractive, with consumers looking for ways to make more creative, better-tasting meals. âConsumers want something more robust,â he said.
Meat processors have an incentive to highlight thighs and similar products to their U.S. customers as the alternative is often to export those parts overseas at a lower cost, said Ben Bienvenu, a food and agriculture research analyst at Stephens Inc.
“Skinless thighs in particular have been in greater demand for at least five years,” he said. Meat companies are working with retailers to make products like thighs more popular, he said.
Mr Ensero said that while wing prices have leveled off in recent weeks, he expects them to rise again during the college football playoffs and the Super Bowl. He said he was sticking his thighs on the Wing It On! Menu.
“You have to sell it,” he said. “We had to create the demand for this product.”
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