Expensive chicken puts thighs on restaurant menus

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Supply shortages and rising costs for chicken breasts and wings are prompting restaurants to add dark chicken thighs and other meats to menus and entrees.

Long eclipsed by more coveted and profitable products like breasts and tenderloins, less popular portions like thighs and thighs have for years been directed to export markets and lesser-known places. Amid a nationwide supply crisis that doubled breast meat prices in 2021, sent wing markets to record highs, and left some suppliers short of both, thighs have a new appeal for business. of meat and restaurateurs.

Poultry producer Perdue Farms Inc. saw a 15% increase in sales of boneless thighs in 2021 and a 20% increase in ground chicken, which is mostly dark meat, the company said.

“This demand has been spectacular,” said Mark McKay, president of the poultry and fresh meats company of Salisbury, Md..

Products like thighs have two advantages for restaurants struggling with the high cost and tight supply of breasts and fillets: They are cheaper and easier to obtain, industry officials said. Boneless, skinless chicken breast, the flagship of the poultry industry, cost less than $ 1 a pound at the end of December 2020. Today, it costs more than $ 2 a pound, according to the research firm. market Urner Barry. Thighs, meanwhile, cost about 54 cents a pound, down from 26 cents a year earlier, according to the firm.

Mentions of thighs are multiplying on American menus, even if they remain rare. About 2% of American menus feature chicken thighs, according to industry research firm Technomic Inc. By comparison, 42% of menus contain traditional chicken wings.

The national Wingstop chain has launched a menu offering focused on chicken thigh products.


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At Wing It On !, a 10-unit chain specializing in chicken, executives hatched a plan to diversify its poultry supply as prices skyrocketed. General manager Matt Ensero said he realized that although the wings were coveted by restaurants, vendors still had the rest of the bird for sale, which made his account less appealing than other restaurateurs. who were buying more pieces of chicken.

“You think about the anatomy of the bird, and the wing itself is only 10%. That leaves 90% of the birds that producers need to find in their homes, ”said Ensero, who estimated his chicken prices had climbed more than 200% from spring 2020.

At the end of 2020, Ensero said, he approached his suppliers with a “global strategy”. He would find ways to serve more pieces of chicken if they gave him better terms. They agreed and Mr. Ensero started selling “thigh wings” in addition to the chain’s traditional offerings last spring.

Customer demand was a trickle at first, and Mr. Ensero said he often gives the item away for his customers to try on. Fly away! price the new products at a lower price than traditional wings, even if they had more than twice the meat.

About seven months later, the national Wingstop channel Inc.

launched a “Thighstop” brand focused on chicken thigh products. The channel called on rapper and Wingstop restaurant owner Rick Ross to promote the dark meat alternative, tweeting a photo of Mr. Ross reading a newspaper with the headline “Wing Shortage.”

“We also believe we can make thighs a centerpiece of the plate,” CEO Charlie Morrison told investors in November.

Mr. Ensero said that Wing It On! increased by 40% after Wingstop’s incursion into the thighs. Fly away! Also sells white meat fillets and ‘Nuggz’, and Mr. Ensero said the chain now buys just about all parts of the chicken except the thighs.

Fast-paced, laid-back chains such as Modern Market Eatery and Just Salad began adding thighs to their menus in late 2020, showcasing produce as something different and tastier.

“Chicken thighs are all about the flavor,” said Nick Kenner, CEO of Just Salad. He said more customers are now choosing the product over the New York-based chain’s chicken breast offerings.

Chick-fil-A has built its rapid growth on the popularity of its chicken sandwich. But its unconventional approach to business helped make it the third-largest fast food restaurant chain in the United States. WSJ has an overview of the strategies that led to the success of the Atlanta-based company. Photo: Richard B. Levine / Zuma Press

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.

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CEO Donnie King said in August that demand for the Arkansas meat giant’s boneless dark meat chicken products was increasing. The company recently announced plans to increase its automation capabilities for the boning of dark meat products.

The increased use of boneless dark meat and thigh cuts offers catering operations an alternative to wings and breast meat, a Tyson spokesperson said.

Mr McKay de Perdue said that as more people start cooking at home during the pandemic, poultry legs and other brown meats are gaining traction with consumers looking for ways to prepare meals. more creative and tastier. “Consumers want something more robust,” he said.

Meat processors are encouraged to focus on thighs and similar products with their US customers, as the alternative is often to export these parts cheaply overseas, said Ben Bienvenu, research analyst. on food and agri-food at Stephens Inc.

“Boneless, skinless thighs, in particular, have been in increasing 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 although wing prices have stabilized in recent weeks, he expects them to rise again during the college football playoffs and the Super Bowl. He said he was sticking to the thighs on the Wing It On! Menu.

“You have to sell it,” he said. “We had to create a demand for this product.

Write to Patrick Thomas at [email protected] and Heather Haddon at [email protected]

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