MINNEAPOLIS - Pat LaFrieda Jr. can’t get enough chicken thighs. If his family business, which is featured on the Food Network series “Meat Men,’’ orders 100 cases of boneless, skinless thighs, his supplier might deliver only 60.
That’s because consumers have discovered something chefs have long known about dark meat: “It was always the least expensive protein that you could buy, but it had the most amount of flavor,’’ LaFrieda said.
Thighs and drumsticks are selling briskly as Americans join consumers abroad in seeking flavor that isn’t found in ubiquitous, boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
The poultry industry used to have trouble finding a market for dark meat, but changing domestic tastes and growing exports to countries that prefer leg quarters are pushing up prices and helping pull the poultry industry out of a deep slump.
Poultry industry analysts agree that TV food shows are helping to spur demand as chefs talk up dark meat and give home cooks new ideas.
Dark meat is more forgiving than white and doesn’t dry out as easily, La Frieda said, so thighs are great on the grill, while ground dark meat works well when shaped into burgers, stuffed into ravioli, or stirred into a Bolognese sauce and served over pasta, he said.
“If you’re looking for what the next trend is . . . always ask the butcher what he takes home,’’ said LaFrieda, whose company, Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors of North Bergen, N.J., supplies restaurants in the New York area and along the East Coast.
Matt Monk, 29, of Birmingham, Ala., a customer service representative for Medicare, said he grew up eating chicken breasts because that’s all his mother would cook. He wasn’t introduced to dark meat until he moved in with his father in his teens.
“I like it because of the flavor,’’ Monk said. “It does not dry out like white meat. White meat, to me, it’s flavorless.’’
The convenience and greater availability of boneless, skinless thighs is another major factor in the dark meat craze. The parts once had to be butchered by hand, but automated equipment makes it more economical to debone leg quarters.
Dark meat historically has been cheaper than white, but according to Department of Agriculture statistics, wholesale boneless, skinless thighs now cost as much as breasts, and sometimes more.
Both averaged $1.33 a pound in March, but thigh prices were up 15 percent from a year earlier, while breasts were up only 1 percent. Bone-in leg quarters averaged 53 cents per pound in March, up 26 percent from a year ago.
Melissa Dexter, 27, a student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, said she noticed recently when buying both boneless breasts and thighs at Walmart that the package of dark meat actually cost about 50 cents more. She said thighs are generally cheaper, though, and help stretch her budget.
For decades, producers made their money on the front half of the bird but lost money on the back half, said Bill Roenigk, senior vice president and economist with the National Chicken Council. That began changing in the 1990s as the industry found new markets in Russia, Asia, and Latin America. While producers still lose money on dark meat, he said, the difference isn’t as great as it once was.
Domestically, chicken companies are becoming more innovative with new products such as chicken sausages, which are mostly dark meat, Roenigk said. At the same time, they’re seeing more sales to Hispanic and Asian immigrants, who have brought their food preferences with them.
At Whole Foods Market Inc., the dark meat trend has mainly shown up in sales of store-made chicken sausage, said Theo Weening, meat buyer for the Texas-based chain. The varieties vary, but Italian and breakfast sausages are top sellers.
The top US chicken producer, Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, Ark., declined to provide sales figures before its earnings report next month, but a spokesman said it has seen strong growth with dark meat and is actively promoting it to customers seeking value.
Nobody is ready to write off the boneless, skinless chicken breast, however.
“I think we’re still a white-meat nation when it comes to chicken,’’ said Tom Stone, marketing director for Bell & Evans Chicken, of Fredericksburg, Pa., which supplies dealers and restaurants.