PLAYIN' CHICKEN

America might be serving chicken for dinner, but nobody's beating the table for drumsticks.Across the country, consumers are piling their shopping carts high with packages of boneless chicken breasts for $1.89 and $1.99 a pound as retailers curry high volume with low prices. But as margins get gobbled up, the sub-category is in danger of becoming a loss leader, industry sources told SN.Some marketing

America might be serving chicken for dinner, but nobody's beating the table for drumsticks.

Across the country, consumers are piling their shopping carts high with packages of boneless chicken breasts for $1.89 and $1.99 a pound as retailers curry high volume with low prices. But as margins get gobbled up, the sub-category is in danger of becoming a loss leader, industry sources told SN.

Some marketing experts argue such attention is short-sighted. As demand reaches new heights, the supply gets shorter, wholesale prices climb and margins all but disappear. Meanwhile, high-margin legs and thighs just lie there, when in today's market, dark meat can carry a margin more than twice that of boneless skinless breast.

Some effort to kick up sales of those would be smart, they said.

"It's time to market against margins, but that requires really good communication between the retailer and the processor/packer," said Bill Pizzico, president, The Prizm Group, a Blue Bell, Pa., management firm that develops sales/marketing programs for perishables. "They, together, need to create a solid marketing program that will give high-margin, slower-moving products a chance to grow in volume."

Having a strategy that involves the whole meat case is key because taking space away from high-margin items constantly erodes the profit base, Pizzico pointed out.

Others, too, said it's necessary to take a step back and look with a marketing eye at the entire case, or at least at the whole poultry section. In the words of one speaker during the National Chicken Council's 2003 marketing seminar, "a marketing program based on marketing half the chicken is like a house with only half a foundation."

Several things have come together in the last couple of years to increase demand for white meat and glut the market with dark meat. People are getting serious about shedding fat and eating healthy, and rising beef prices have sent many shoppers back to chicken where boneless breast is their favorite. Most recently, fast-food operations have begun to use all white-meat nuggets -- notably, big-user McDonald's -- and are bragging about it.

Meanwhile, international trade complications have practically dried up what was once a huge overseas market for this country's dark meat chicken.

The poultry industry was successful in getting consumers excited about wings, and now marketing conditions are propelling processors to pay more attention to dark meat, with varying degrees of success.

SN talked to supermarket operators who have purposefully elevated dark meat's status with some value-added twists. Television chefs and even chefs at some white-tablecloth restaurants are helping in that regard. The National Chicken Council and processors are distributing recipes and instituting related contests that give dark meat its due.

"We offered a $1,000 bonus to the winner of our annual recipe contest the last two years if the recipe utilized dark meat. That brought in a lot of dark meat recipes," said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the NCC, Washington.

And a recipe for chicken legs stuffed with dried fruits and herbs took second place in Campbell's Foodservice division's recent annual recipe competition.

It's not that processors aren't trying to whet the consumer's appetite for it, or that retailers are ignoring the high-margin dark side, but it's a hard-sell to the conventional American shopper who perceives white meat to be the leaner choice and a younger generation that was weaned on breaded tenders and cutlets.

"I even tried 'lollipop drumsticks' but they didn't buy them. I had our supplier take everything off the leg but the nice round of meat at the top. They looked great, but they didn't sell, not at retail, not here," said Jack Gridley, meat/seafood director, at Dorothy Lane Markets, a three-unit, upscale independent in Dayton, Ohio.

Adding value that aims to put boneless thighs on a par with other gourmet items in the service meat case is Gridley's strategy.

"One of our ready-to-cook items is a recipe we picked up in Italy. It's a boneless thigh, stuffed with fresh garlic and rosemary. The thigh's wrapped in bacon and there's a basil leaf sticking out of it. That's doing all right," Gridley said, adding that demoing the item -- most recently last weekend -- helps keep the item moving.

"We're immune to the big changes in the commodity market because we're dealing only with free-range, all-natural products which takes us out of commodity. But of course we want to increase sales of the dark meat. The margin's better. We probably haven't worked hard enough at it. If I were working with a commodity product, I'd be trying harder [to sell dark meat]. I see everybody's ads all over town, practically giving boneless, skinless breasts away."

Dorothy Lane is advertising thighs more frequently and demoed them this summer to show how easy they are to grill. The company also is about to launch a test of all dark-meat chicken salad. Not just for the bigger margin but to be doing something other retailers aren't, Gridley said.

"I'm a big believer in dark meat. I think when people taste it, they'll like it."

Culinary-trained chefs and retailers know that the most flavor, tenderness and moistness lie in the dark meat, sources said. Anthony Chittum, chef de cuisine at Equinox, a tony establishment in downtown Washington, said the restaurant currently offers two entrees that include white and dark meat: braised Pennsylvania farm chicken with cracked green olives, celery root puree, capers and white wine; and pulled Amish chicken salad with dried cranberries, roasted cashews and toasted brioche.

"I think dark meat has always been more popular with the cook than with the customer," Chittum observed. "But recently customers trust the opinion of the chef more."

Preparation certainly helps. Chittum said at Equinox, the dark meat takes "quite a bit longer to cook because we braise it."

Many ethnic groups, too, prefer the dark meat, which bodes well for the future as mainstream consumers become better acquainted with various ethnic dishes, particularly with the Hispanic population in the United States.

While researcher Rosita Thomas has not conducted specific studies on chicken consumption or sales, she confirmed that the dark meat of the chicken is used extensively by the Hispanic community.

"The evidence I can give you is purely anecdotal but I know Hispanics prefer the dark meat. It's used a lot in stews and soups for its extra flavor," said Thomas, president of Thomas Opinion Research, Manassas, Va.

That view was seconded by Cristina Benitez, president, Lazos-Latinos, a Chicago-based advertising agency that specializes in working with the U.S. Hispanic community.

"Skinless white meat is just not as valued, for instance, in Latin America or the Caribbean. People feel there's more taste of chicken in the dark meat, and that's what they want. In fact, a lot of their recipes call for the whole chicken," Benitez said.

At Pennington Quality Market in Pennington, N.J., dark meat sales are picking up -- but only the value-added items, said Don Rellstab, manager of the single-unit independent.

"A lot of people just don't want dark meat. They've been trained on nuggets," he said. "We're selling more thighs than we were but only in conjunction with marinating and stuffing. We do sell quite a few thighs with apple-cranberry stuffing. And we stuff and roll boned-out legs. We sell them out of our gourmet case."

But even as he merchandises those items along with others in the gourmet case, Rellstab, like other retailers, continues to put boneless, skinless breasts on special.

"When we put the price at $1.99, we're selling 8,000 to 10,000 pounds a week. That's compared to maybe 1,200 pounds when it's at its regular price. Our customers know it'll be on sale again in a couple of weeks, so they wait. It's just tempting to special the big movers, but it certainly would behoove us to try to sell more dark meat," Rellstab said.

A Regular Cut-up

How chicken is purchased in supermarkets

Breasts, boneless/skinless 65.6%

Whole chicken 33.6

Legs/leg quarters 32.8

Drumsticks 31.1

Breasts, bone-in/skin-on 29.7

Thighs 29.4

Wings 26.0

Other 1.0

None 6.0

Don't know/no response 3.0

NOTE: Ranked by percentage stating a "usual purchase," with multiple answers permitted.

SOURCE: National Chicken Council, "Consumers Speak About Chicken" market survey, 2003