Restaurants Tap Dark Poultry Meat Options

Chicken breast costs are up and product availability is down, pushing restaurant operators to get creative and add thighs and other dark poultry meat to menus.

Long overshadowed by more-coveted and profitable products like breasts and tenders, less-loved portions like thighs and legs have for years been directed toward export markets and lower-profile venues. Amid a national supply crunch that has doubled breast meat prices in 2021, sent wing markets to record levels and left some suppliers short on both, thighs have fresh appeal for restaurants.

Products like thighs have two advantages for restaurants struggling with the high cost and tight supplies of breasts and tenders: they are cheaper and easier to get. Boneless skinless chicken breast was priced at under $1 a pound in late December 2020. Now, it is more than $2 a pound, according to market research firm Urner Barry. Thighs, meanwhile, cost about 54 cents a pound, compared with 26 cents a year earlier, according to the firm. (The Wall Street Journal,  Jan. 1).

“As the supply chain continues to tighten and the chicken wars grow, we are seeing QSR and fast casual restaurants pivot to add the more affordable and more readily available chicken thighs to their menus,” said Erica Holland-Toll, culinary director at The Culinary Edge, a San Francisco-based food and beverage innovation agency that has worked with major foodservice brands like Starbucks, Dunkin’, First Watch, Sweetgreen, and Buffalo Wild Wings.

The Rise of Dark Meat

Holland-Toll added that thighs already have a leg up in the restaurant industry.

“Over the years, Chipotle has proven chicken thighs offer a delicious, readily accepted alternative to chicken breast. Thighs have the added benefit of retaining moisture during hot holding, they are forgiving to cook and don’t dry out as easily as chicken breast, and they have the added benefit of contributing additional savoriness to value-added marinades and dry rubs.”

With that, dark meat sales are on the rise.

“2021 has seen a boom in thigh sales, with Perdue reporting a 15% increase in sales and Sanderson Farms reporting a 66.3% increase in leg quarter sales over 2021. Fried chicken-centric operations like WingStop’s virtual brand, ThighStop, and Golden Chicks are offering fried thigh combos, and QSR bowl and salad companies like Just Salad and Modern Market are adding chicken thighs to their protein line-up, calling out the versatility and deliciousness of the burgeoning thigh,” Holland-Toll said.

Independent Restaurants Adapt Too

Like many other restaurateurs, Fabien Santos, owner-operator of San Francisco Mexican comfort food restaurant Merkado, has adapted to pandemic-related supply chain issues.

“We got pretty proactive on this. We have a whole rotisserie chicken on the menu and use the entire item, for not only on a Pollo con Mole, but also in our Enchiladas and Sopa Ranchera, Santos said. “We’ve also moved to a ‘sharing’ program when it comes to high-cost items like beef, moved into rotating seasonal items when it comes to seafood, and we’ve also been playing around with plant-based options like Impossible meat.”