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Chicken Thighs: The new wings?

After roughly twelve months of dealing with pandemic shutdowns, reopenings, vaccines and variants, consumers are in a spending mood. That’s good news for the economy overall, but when pent-up demand meets still-recovering supply, availability goes down and prices go up. It’s happening with lumber. It’s happening with chlorine. It’s even happening with ketchup packets. And now everyone is freaking out over the chicken shortage.

Actually, industry media have been warning us about price increases and low supplies since at least February. Following brief shortages and price spikes last spring, chicken production evened out and remained steady through year’s end. Processing plants, however, are still dealing with a labor shortage and worker protection issues. Meanwhile, the Chicken Sandwich Wars that began in late 2019 raged on through last year and into this one. People can’t seem to get enough of a good chicken breast or tenders sandwich. But what they really can’t get enough of is wings.

The saying goes that there are two seasons for chicken wings, Super Bowl and the rest of the year. Weirdly, this year’s Big Game viewership was down 8 percent from the year before but, according to the National Chicken Council, wing consumption was up 2 percent. In one weekend, we ate a record 1.42 billion chicken wings!

No wonder there’s a chicken shortage. If you are a chicken restaurant operator battling it out with your supplier or about to launch a virtual chicken concept, stop for a moment and consider this: Nowhere does any of this news coverage mention a shortage of chicken thighs.

For every pair of chicken wings, there is a pair of chicken thighs selling for roughly half the price per pound and more than twice the meat per serving. That alone should be enough to pique an operator’s interest these days. The problem is, chicken thighs don’t get the same respect from the American palate that they do elsewhere. That’s mostly due to a lack of marketing. Taste tests have consistently shown that three out of four consumers prefer the flavor of thighs to breasts or wings. Thigh meat is moist and tender with enough fat from the bird itself for flavor so you can taste the chicken, not just what it’s breaded, marinated or cooked in.

As part of a “whole-bird strategy,” thighs are proving to be an ally for Wingstop to keep up with demand and increase contract-based purchases. The Dallas-based chain with more than 1,500 units has been testing a bone-in thigh product to add to their regular lineup. Nathan’s Famous plans to roll out two new chicken sandwiches, both featuring boneless, skinless thighs. The more intense flavor of the thigh holds up beautifully in both the Nashville Hot fried version and the marinated grilled sandwich, according to a senior executive with the chain, calling them some of the most flavorful options in the industry.

If you’re a smaller operator or a food truck looking to stay in the chicken game while maintaining high-margin profitability, give thighs a try. Like wings, thighs can be served bone-in or boneless, breaded and deep-fried, baked or grilled. I like them twice-fried with Korean style breading and a sweet, spicy gochujang sauce. If you’re in the northeast, you might try dredging them in “clam fry” breading. In the south, pressure fried with hot honey sauce and a fried green tomato. One of my favorite ways to do chicken thighs is to French them into lollipops. Like drumsticks, thighs hold up well to this technique. The result is tender meat slightly compressed and massed towards one end of the bone, with the other exposed for the “handle.” They make terrific finger food. And compared to half a dozen wings, one or two thighs makes for a lot less mess.

Just remember, consumers are not conditioned to appreciate thighs the way they have been with wings, tenders and breasts. Your best bet is to come up with a signature item, give it a niche, do trial promotions, and start a whisper campaign. Once you get a few people eating and enjoying chicken thighs, the good word will spread!

For more information on frying and understanding your options, click here. Or, if you’re already frying and want to analyze an existing program, check out our free download: The Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid in Your Frying Program (and how to fix them).