Looking back on menu trends over the past year, two chicken items clearly rose to the top: wings and breasts. Competing for the best and most unique fried chicken sandwich—most featuring a crispy fried chicken breast—turned into an all-out war among chains. And virtual chicken wing concepts became the darling of delivery-only kitchens.
So what’s happening with the other parts of the bird?
Traditionally, there’s been a lucrative export market for legs and thighs, with China and Russia two of the biggest customers. The pandemic has pretty much weakened the export business for now.
But that’s not the only reason operators are turning to thighs. They happen to be juicier and more flavorful than the white meat, many chefs agree.
Historically, wholesale prices for dark meat have been lower than those for white meat. Wing prices tend to be very volatile and surge as demand goes up, and boneless breasts are going into all of those chicken sandwiches. But as thighs become more popular, they may no longer be a money-saver.
Right now “the price of chicken breast is a little less than chicken thighs,” says Jhonny Castro, culinary director of Just Salad. “We believe that other concepts will soon be using the chicken thigh due to its increasing popularity and that we will see a change in the supply chain.”
Earlier this month, Just Salad added boneless, skinless chicken thighs as a protein option for its bowls and salads. The thighs marinate onsite for 24 hours before they’re roasted and lightly seared.
“This technique retains moisture and keeps the chicken really tender and juicy,” says Castro. “The seasoning is very simple: blended oil, balsamic vinegar, cumin, chilli powder, coriander and salt. But the key is to let it rest for 24 hours to really get all the flavors to penetrate the meat.”
Castro believes that the chicken thighs—always served warm—give fast-casual guests something different—"something that they can enjoy at any time of the day, but especially for those who are looking for a delicious dinner.”
Customers can add the thighs to any bowl or salad, but Castro developed a new menu item to highlight the protein. The Chicken Pita Salad stars the chicken thigh along with red cabbage, romaine lettuce, feta cheese, corn, jalapenos, grape tomatoes and pita chips.
Like Just Salad, fast-casual Sweetgreen wanted to find a way to build dinner business during the pandemic as the office lunch crowd largely disappeared. Its strategy was to create dinner plates, with several starring bone-in chicken thighs.
To launch the new offering, Sweetgreen created an entirely new menu category called “Plates,” starting with a roster of nine items. Hot Honey Chicken and Miso Chicken with Vegetables were both in the original lineup in April, but Sweetgreen is dedicated to changing its menu seasonally. For fall/winter, the whole roasted thighs are featured in a Cranberry Maple Chicken Plate and a Chicken Curry Chicken Plate. Each is served warm and accompanied by several sides: hot roasted sweet potatoes, Brussels slaw, cauliflower rice and wild rice in the former, and curry roasted cauliflower, slaw, sweet potatoes and warm quinoa in the latter.
The meals are packaged on square plates to differentiate them from the chain’s signature salads and warm bowls, and the components are placed next to each other to resemble a traditional dinner plate.
Modern Market recently debuted blackened chicken thighs on its menu—a new protein for the fast casual. The thighs are tossed in a blend of paprika, thyme, garlic, onion, chili powder, cayenne and black pepper prior to roasting or searing, then go into two new items: a Blackened Chicken Mango Bowl with organic rice and quinoa blend, mango salsa, roasted sweet potatoes, black beans and kale topped with habanero pineapple sauce, and a Blackened Chicken Thigh Hand Carved Bowl with chimichurri and two sides. The thighs are also replacing chicken breast in Modern Market’s BBQ Pizza and Baja Blackened Chicken Salad.
While chicken breast and wings still dominate menus at 49.2% and 42% operator penetration, according to Technomic’s Ignite menu data, more operators are turning to thighs. Currently, just 2% of operators in Technomic’s database offer thighs, but year over year, menu mentions are up 21.4% in chicken sandwiches, 16.7% in Asian chicken dishes and 20% in barbecue items.
Although Just Salad is paying a premium for thighs, U.S. Department of Agriculture stats show that wholesale prices of commodity chicken thighs typically trend lower than for breast meat and are significantly less than wings.
That’s one of the reasons Wingstop is currently testing bone-in thighs. In a Q3 earnings call, the wing-centric chain shared that it’s moving toward a “whole-bird strategy;” an attempt to use more parts of the chicken to protect against price surges in wings.
In test, Wingstop is offering the bone-in thighs cooked crispy and tossed with any of the chain’s 11 sauces.
Consumers used to shun dark meat in favor of white meat, but now chicken thighs seem to be coming into their own. Can a virtual thigh concept be far behind?