Expensive chicken puts thighs on restaurant menus

Expensive chicken puts thighs on restaurant menus

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

Long overshadowed by more coveted and profitable products like breasts and tenders, less-loved portions like thighs and legs have for years been targeting export markets and lower-profile venues. Amid a national supply crisis that doubled breast meat prices in 2021, sent wing markets to record highs, and left some suppliers short on both, thighs have a new appeal for meat companies and meatloafers. restaurant operators.

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

A box of fried golden chicken wings (istock)

“That demand has been 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 cost and a shortage of breasts and tenders: They are cheaper and easier to come by, industry officials said. The boneless, skinless chicken breast, the flagship product of the poultry industry, was priced at less than $ 1 a pound at the end of December 2020. Now, it’s more than $ 2 a pound, according to the research firm of Urner Barry market. The thighs, meanwhile, cost about 54 cents a pound, up from 26 cents a year earlier, according to the firm.

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Mentions of thighs are growing on US menus, although they remain rare. About 2% of US menus include chicken thighs, according to industrial research firm Technomic Inc. By comparison, 42% of menus include traditional chicken wings.

At Wing It On !, a 10-unit chain that specializes in chicken, executives developed a plan to diversify their poultry supply as prices soared. CEO Matt Ensero said he realized that while wings were coveted among restaurants, vendors still had the rest of the bird to sell, making his account less attractive than other restaurant operators that they bought more parts of the chicken.

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In this Dec.12, 2019 file photo, workers process chickens at a poultry plant in Fremont, (AP Photo / Nati Harnik, File / AP Press Room)

“You think about the anatomy of the bird, and the wing itself is only 10%. That leaves 90% of the bird that producers have to find a home,” said Ensero, who estimated that the prices of his chicken have risen more than 200% as of spring 2020.

In late 2020, Ensero said, it approached its suppliers with a “comprehensive strategy.” I would discover ways to serve more parts of the chicken if they gave it better conditions. They agreed, and Ensero began selling “thigh wings” in addition to the chain’s traditional offerings last spring.

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Customer demand was a trickle at first, and Ensero said it often gave the item away on orders for its customers to try. Wing It On! Price of the new products at a discount compared to traditional wings, even though they had more than twice the amount of meat.

About seven months later, the national chain Wingstop Inc. launched a “Thighstop” brand focused on chicken thigh products. The chain recruited 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.”

In this December 2, 2008 file photo, a Pilgrim’s Pride-hired chicken farmer walks among three-week-old chicks on a farm outside the city limits of Pittsburg, Texas. (AP Photo / LM Otero, file)

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

Ensero said Wing It On! It skyrocketed 40% after Wingstop’s foray into the thighs. Wing It On! It also sells white meats and “Nuggz,” and 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 began adding drumsticks to their menus in late 2020, presenting the produce as something different and tastier.

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

Chicken suppliers are preparing to sell more drumsticks and other dark meat products to US 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 meat chicken products is growing. The company recently said it plans to increase its automation capabilities to debone dark meat products.

The increased use of boneless thighs and pieces of dark meat provides foodservice operations with an alternative to wings and brisket, a Tyson spokesperson said.

McKay of Perdue said that as more people began cooking at home during the pandemic, thighs and other dark poultry meats gained traction among consumers looking for ways to prepare better tasting and more creative meals. “Consumers want something more robust,” he said.

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Meat processors have an incentive to emphasize thighs and similar products to their U.S. customers, because the alternative is often to export those parts at a lower cost overseas, said Ben Bienvenu, food and agribusiness research analyst. by Stephens Inc.

“Skinless, boneless thighs, in particular, have been in constant demand for at least the last five years,” he said. Meat companies are working with retailers to make products like thighs more popular, he said.

Ensero said that while 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’s sticking with thighs on the Wing It On! Menu.

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

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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