Comforting, familiar and an ideal delivery category, chicken wings and fried chicken sandwiches gave operators serving them a big boost during the pandemic. Then, earlier this year, the chicken supply chain got mucked up, and wings and breast prices started going through the coop, due to the unlikely convergence of labor shortages, logistical challenges, surging demand and extreme weather.
Yet many restaurant operators haven’t let these chicken challenges ruffle their feathers. Instead, they’ve accepted it as an invitation to innovate — leaning into lesser-known cuts of poultry, going boneless, launching virtual fried chicken brands and more.
Virtual fried chicken
As a way to offset chicken wing challenges, a number of major chains have introduced new virtual fried chicken concepts. Most notably, in June, 900-unit Wingstop launched Thighstop, a new brand selling crispy chicken thighs. The concept uses the existing Wingstop locations to prepare the thighs, but the menu is only available online.
When prices on wings began to soar, Chef Chad Rosenthal knew that substituting any other chicken part for his signature herb-brined buttermilk fried chicken wings wouldn’t fly. At first Rosenthal took wings off the menu at his Philadelphia-based The Lucky Well BBQ restaurants.
“We cook wings different — brine, season, smoke them for 24 hours,” said Rosenthal. “It didn’t make sense. Unless you want to buy a smoked chicken wing for $10.”
Later, Rosenthal began frying whole chickens, which he said really took off. But the full birds also took up an entire fryer. He then made a fried chicken sandwich and sold it as a virtual pop-up out of The Lucky Well locations. The sandwich was such a hit he launched Motel Fried Chicken, a virtual brand for which he is now exploring franchising options.
These days, the signature fried chicken wings are back on The Lucky Well menu, and Rosenthal is looking at other chicken products to add to both concepts.
Photo: Fried chicken thigh “wings” at DDT in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“Price is still an issue — we tried other suppliers [but] it’s everywhere,” Rosenthal said. “I still think chicken is king. Everyone loves chicken.”
Limited thigh offers
Emerging chains, such as Wing It On!, a nine-unit New England–based fresh-never-frozen concept, turned to a limited-thigh offer.
“We dug in on the R&D, looked for new products that would be a hit,” said Matt Ensero, Wing It On! CEO and founder.
The chain’s new crispy thigh wings, a bone-in chicken thigh trimmed to look like a wing and drumstick and prepared just like the chain’s classic wings, were launched in February as a limited-time offer. The crispy thigh wings have been so popular that they are now a permanent menu item available in three sizes (4, 8 and 16 counts)
Other chicken innovations Wing It On! is exploring include Nugs, which are fried chicken nuggets made from the trimmed chicken-breast meat that are now being tested.
Thighs have been a hit with customers at DDT, a wrestling-themed neighborhood bar and restaurant in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood since it opened 10 days after the COVID-19 shutdown.
“We wanted to a product with a high profit margin that people could feel good about,” said Randy Tyson, DDT chef and co-owner with his wife, Suzanne Tyson. “And so the chicken thigh was launched at opening.”
For his version of thigh wings, Tyson brines boneless, skinless thighs in a buttermilk marinade for 24 hours, dredges them in a “secret” recipe, then fries and serves with a smoky mayonnaise made with an ingredient of “Asian origin” ($10 for five pieces).
“As long as I can still get them, I’ll sell them,” said Tyson. “I haven’t raised the price [because] it’s a bar — we want people to drink.”
Carolyn Nguyen has long been devoted to chicken thighs. The chef and owner of Revolution Taco in Philadelphia uses them exclusively for her Chicken Tinga Tacos, made with cotija, radish, salsa verde and lettuce ($7.50).
“I lean toward the flavors of thighs more,” said Nguyen. “We do have issues with supply chain challenges and are now paying higher prices. We may have to raise our prices to account for it at some point.”
Fried chicken future
Despite the success many brands are having with fried chicken thighs and other alternative cuts, none is without its challenges.
“The biggest problem in the states is it’s one of the only places people don’t prefer dark meat,” said Wing It On!’s Ensero. “We think it’s going to be a slow adoption.”
That said, having national chains like Wing Stop put their marketing muscle behind chicken thighs has given a boost to Wing It On! and others.
“In the three weeks since Wingstop launched Thighstop, our sales on thigh wings are up 40 percent,” he said.