‘Thighstop’ is Wingstop’s virtual restaurant response to chicken wing shortage
Wingstop, faced with high chicken wing prices and tight supply, is drumming up business for another poultry part: the thigh.
The chicken wing chain is launching a virtual brand, Thighstop, focused on bone-in and boneless thighs.
Wingstop—as its name clearly suggests—sells chicken wings. Now, it is eager to see how customers respond to its new thigh-only concept, which comes as wing prices have soared.
The chain is introducing Thighstop as a virtual brand rather than adding thighs to the Wingstop menu. For now, Thighstop items will be available only for delivery or carryout via Wingstop’s delivery partner, DoorDash.“This is our way of giving thighs their prominent place on the menu,” says Charlie Morrison, Wingstop's CEO.
The idea is being introduced in marketing including a video starring Wingstop's most famous franchisee, rapper Rick Ross.
Thighstop launches after Wingstop saw other restaurants launch virtual brands during the pandemic, including Brinker International's It’s Just Wings and Cosmic Wings, which prepares its wings in Applebee’s kitchens.
For Wingstop, launching a thighs chain for delivery and carryout only required little more than adding a few utensils in the kitchens, says Morrison. The thighs cook as fast as its wings do, and are served with fries and sauces, just like the wings.
Wingstop was testing dark meat for a year or two but “we hadn’t really cracked the code on the best way to launch this,” says Morrison, who adds that after seeing more virtual brands launch during the pandemic, Wingstop came up with a way to “hack our own brand.”
Thighstop marketing from Leo Burnett acknowledges the run on wings in America.
Thighstop makes the Wingstop connection clear with lines such as “The Thigh Experts” rather than “The Wing Experts.”
“It’s really a strategic plan we have to utilize more parts of the chicken,” says Morrison.
It’s also a way for the chain to put more attention where it gets a big chunk of its sales. Already, 65% of Wingstop’s sales come in through digital channels, and 25% of sales are for delivery. Wingstop continues to see strong demand overall, with sales at longstanding U.S. restaurants up 20.7% in the first quarter after rising 18.2% in 2020.
Wings are getting pricey. In the first quarter of 2021, Wingstop faced a 28.5% increase in the cost of bone-in chicken wings from a year earlier. Wing shortages continue to generate headlines and are even leading some chains to raise prices. Thighs, says Morrison, remain readily available.
Thighstop orders will be prepared at Wingstop restaurants with the same sauce options and bone-in and boneless varieties that the chain offers for wings. Thighstop will launch with some value-oriented bundles to drive trial of the product, Morrison says.
Selling thighs isn’t a new concept. KFC, for example, includes thighs in its buckets. And many people find the darker meat pieces more flavorful than lighter parts of the bird getting more attention, such as the breast meat used in fast-food fried chicken sandwiches. Until now, thighs haven’t been a focus from a major wing chain.
Whichever pieces people prefer, they're eating more of it. Annual per capita chicken consumption in the U.S. has increased over the last eight years—and another rise is expected in 2021, to 98 pounds, up from 97.5 pounds in 2020, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture tracked by the National Chicken Council. When Wingstop opened its first restaurant in 1994, per capita chicken consumption was 69.7 pounds.