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, global meat buyer for the Austin, Texas-based chain. The varieties vary, but Italian and breakfast sausages are top sellers. Whole Foods had to scramble last year when sausage makers boosted production for the holidays and dark meat became hard to get, but things are back on track now, he said.
The No. 1 U.S. 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 "value-conscious customers."
"Last year, we launched a line of chicken lunch meats, which are packaged deli-style for retailers," Gary Mickelson said. "Other areas perfect for dark meat chicken include pizza toppings, ground chicken and smoked sausage. These offerings allow value-conscious customers to buy high quality, great tasting all-meat products, but at a lower price point."
While companies wouldn't release figures, other supermarkets and suppliers also said they're seeing strong growth in dark meat sales.
Tim Wensman, an executive vice president for St. Cloud-based GNP Company, which supplies Gold'n Plump brand chicken to Midwestern supermarkets, said a line of chicken sausages it's launching this month has already attracted strong interest.
Eden Prairie-based Supervalu Inc., the nation's third-largest supermarket operator, has seen "double-digit" growth in dark meat sales at its Midwest and East Coast chains, spokesman Mike Siemienas said. He wasn't sure why, but speculated that the mild winter led to an early start for the grilling season.
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 including LaFrieda and Whole Foods, and restaurants such as Chipotle Mexican Grill. While thighs are definitely in, Stone said he hasn't seen demand grow as much for bone-in drumsticks.
"That's great kid food," he said. "Maybe it just hasn't hit yet."