Fast-food chicken chains may see a systemic shift, as high costs force companies to finally embrace dark meat

Chicken Sandwich bite
  • Chicken demand increased due to fast food sandwiches and the popularity of wings.
  • Texas storms and labor shortages impacted US chicken farms.
  • Selling dark meat is one way for brands to offset losses as prices rise.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Demand for chicken is still rising as brands compete in the chicken sandwich wars, but the meat has gotten more expensive. Experts predict a simple solution to alleviate this likely temporary problem: chains might start selling and promoting dark meat.

Chicken has become more expensive over the last year, though most of the attention has focused on wings in particular. Chicken wing consumption is up 17% over last year, and breaded chicken is up 15% over the same period, according to NPD data.

Chicken wings were a hit in 2020 and early 2021 as a nearly “pandemic proof” food – they travel well for takeout, and wing and pizza shops already had the experience with delivery to keep business going without indoor dining.

Large storms in Texas over the winter hit the US chicken supply hard in “major chicken producing regions,” Tom Super, a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, told Insider. “It will take time and effort to eventually replace the impacted hatchery supply flocks in that region.”

The same labor shortage impacting restaurants is also hitting chicken farms. “The chicken wing farms in America, they’re having trouble retaining and recruiting employees,” Greg Duell, co-owner of Duff’s Famous Wings in Buffalo, NY, said.

“When that happens, they can’t process the birds fast enough, they have to feed them more, the feed costs have gone up, the birds are getting bigger and they can’t process and get them out,” he said.

The chicken sandwiches sold by Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, and other competitors are made with white meat filets from chicken breasts. Chickens are the most eaten animal in the US, and Americans overwhelmingly prefer white meat to dark meat. This preference led the entire poultry industry to shift towards breeding chickens with more breast meat, and dark meat is often exported.

US consumers are most familiar with wings and breaded sandwiches, but operators may considering offering some different dark meat cuts including thighs, NPD analyst Darren Seifer told Insider. “We’re a very white meat-focused market, but the supply is growing low,” he said.

While some companies may raise prices and others absorb the costs of buying more expensive chicken, selling dark meat could be a way to temporarily offset some losses.

A turn towards dark meat is already starting. Chicken wing chain Wingstop just launched a virtual brand focused on thighs, Thighstop, Insider’s Nancy Luna reported. With a new use for thighs, the chain can buy whole chickens instead of separate parts and save money, Wingstop CEO Charlie Morrison told Insider.

“We do believe it can reduce the total cost for these products dramatically because we’re committing to the entire bird, not just the parts we need,” he said. Thighstop will sell bone-in and boneless thighs tossed in Wingstop’s classic sauces, making the less typical dish more familiar to customers.

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