Boneless Chicken Surges on Restaurant Menus Wingstop’s senior manager of public relations, Maddie Lupori, said the chain hadn’t seen a notable difference in the ages of people who prefer boneless to bone-in wings, although boneless orders skew more toward Hickory Smoked BBQ sauce compared to Garlic Parmesan for bone-in.

Wing-shaped breast meat and strips have growing appeal thanks to convenience and consistency.

Farmer Boys is a fast-casual chain from Southern California best known for its burgers. But these days its top sellers are made with boneless chicken.

“Our best-selling product is the Cobb salad,” chief marketing officer Joe Adney said.

That’s followed by its sourdough chicken avocado sandwich, made with grilled chicken, and next are the 102-unit chain’s new Kickin’ Chicken Strips, which are breast strips in a proprietary seasoning including garlic, onion, and paprika served with fries, Texas Toast, and a drink starting at $5.99.

“I was looking at our overall chicken sales, which typically run less than burger sales,” Adney said, “but our chicken entrées, not including breakfast entrées, are now exceeding our burger sales by about 25%.” He partly credits the new strips for that success.

It’s true Farmer Boys operates in the comparatively health-conscious regions of California, Arizona, and Nevada, but it’s not alone in seeing an uptick in boneless chicken sales. The country’s largest chicken wing chain, Wingstop, reported in its most recent earnings call that sales of boneless items, including boneless wings and sandwiches, are now 43% of total sales, the highest they have ever been.

CEO Michael Skipworth said during the call that boneless items exceeding 50% of sales are a distinct possibility, “which we believe could result in a structural change to our long-term food cost target, potentially yielding [cost of goods sold] in the low 30% range and further enhancing our best-in-class unit economics.”

Boneless wings, as opposed to nuggets and breasts, are doing particularly well. Of course, they’re not actually wings, but breast strips, which allows for more stable prices. They also have greater appeal to younger customers in particular.

Market and menu research firm Datassential reports that 49% of Gen Z consumers, born in or after 1997, say they “love” boneless wings, compared to 46% among millennials, born from 1982 to 1996, and 41% among members of Gen X (1965-1981).

Baby Boomers are less impressed, with only 25% loving them.

Point-of-sale system provider SpotOn reports that, among its customers, 365 new boneless wing items were added to menus between July 23 and August 22, and that for the year ended in July 2023, the average price of boneless wing sales were up by 19%, from $8.08 to $9.62.

Wingstop’s senior manager of public relations, Maddie Lupori, said the chain hadn’t seen a notable difference in the ages of people who prefer boneless to bone-in wings, although boneless orders skew more toward Hickory Smoked BBQ sauce compared to Garlic Parmesan for bone-in.

Both of those are in third place in their respective categories, after Lemon Pepper and classic Hot Buffalo-style wings, she said.

A Popeyes spokesperson said in an email that boneless options such as tenders, as well as smaller nuggets that were launched in 2021, allow guests of the Atlanta-based chain with nearly 3,000 units to play with them more at home.

“In a world of DIY and life hacks, we’ve also seen recent social media trends of guests incorporating our Nuggets or Tenders into their own culinary creations, showcasing the versatility of our menu items,” the spokesperson said. “Our boneless offerings provide our guests with the freedom to enjoy Popeyes chicken in their preferred way, whether it’s in a sandwich, as a snack, or as a versatile ingredient in their own culinary adventures.”

Chili’s Grill & Bar has beefed up its boneless chicken portfolio by incorporating the items of virtual brand It’s Just Wings into its regular menu. Then it further enhanced the options with the introduction in August of Nashville Hot Chicken Crispers, made with breaded and fried breast strips.

Jesse Johnson, vice president of marketing for the Brinker International subsidiary of more than 1,600 restaurants, said Chili’s guests enjoy the fact that boneless wings allow guests to enjoy the chain’s 10 sauces “without the mess of bone-in.”

“And when trying to feed a huge crowd of football fans for the fall, boneless wings are an economic choice that won’t sacrifice the flavor and format of wings,” Johnson said.

“We’ve seen a huge rise in the popularity of boneless wings since the introduction of our virtual brand It’s Just Wings in 2020,” he added. “In the last three years, we’ve sold almost twice as many boneless wings as bone-in wings at It’s Just Wings.”

He added that the chain has seen “tremendous growth recently” in Chicken Crispers.

The Crispers, along with boneless wings and many other white-meat chicken items that have been added to menus recently, are made with strips rather than tenders.

The chicken tender, the smaller strip attached to each breast, has long been considered the best part of white-meat chicken, but Farmer Boys recently did away with them in favor of more consistent strips, Adney said.  “I kid you not, some tenders were as big as my hand, and some were as small as a little finger,” he said. “I’m not sure how big that bird could have been to have a tender that was as big as my hand.”

Breast strips, by contrast, can be cut according to customers’ specs into whatever sizes they want. That makes them easier for operators to use and results in a more consistent product, improving guest satisfaction, Adney said.

Boneless Chicken also has a growing role at quick-service Mexican chain Del Taco, based in Lake Forest, Calif., with nearly 600 locations.

Fried and grilled boneless chicken have long been available in its tacos and burritos, which chief marketing officer Tim Hackbardt said gives the chain a competitive advantage, particularly the grilled product.

“This is unique and a competitive advantage in the category as our primary competitor doesn’t have any tacos on the menu with grilled chicken, and only one burrito,” Hackbardt said in an email.

The Crispy Chicken Tacos, featuring a fried product, “help anchor our 20 Under $2 Value menu, and guests love the fact that they can access great tasting crispy chicken products for under $2 each,” he said.

“Our grilled chicken tacos, burritos, and quesadillas are among our top sellers and always have been,” he added.

However, Hackbardt said that fried chicken in particular is growing in popularity, “and the protein fits well within our product forms such as tacos and burritos.”

Chick-fil-A, the largest chain when it comes to boneless fried chicken, or any chicken for that matter, has also noticed the appeal of its core product in burrito form and offers fried chicken nuggets or strips as an option in its breakfast burritos.  – Source: NRM.

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