We always strive to keep you abreast of the latest food market research, and in that spirit, and in the interest of passing on important information to the public as football season looms, we feel compelled to tell you: there is something funny happening with chicken wings. Very funny. Funny like, many-of-them-are-not-wings-at-all-but-breasts-in-disguise funny. And it’s all because wings are suddenly more expensive than breasts.
Chicken Little may have warned that the sky is falling, but it is the soaring cost of her wings that have restaurants concerned: wholesale prices have nearly doubled since 2006, currently selling for $2.85/lb.
And while the less rigorous among us may be tempted to just shout “inflation!” we can say with confidence that there is more afoot here. So follow us through the restaurant market research as we try to explain the topsy-turvy ticks and tastes of American poultry consumption, and the strange steps restaurants are taking to address them. And if you couldn't tell already, there will be more than a handful of puns (some better than others) coming down the pipe. You've been warned.
Americans Eat a lot of Chicken Wings
First, let’s just look at some numbers. Over the 2014 Super Bowl Weekend (no, not the Malcolm Butler year), Americans ate 1.23 billion chicken wings. That number may seem high, but before you call fowl, consider that roughly 110 million of us watch the Super Bowl and, while not everybody at the party eats enough wings to build their own boneyard, that’s still equals only about 10 wings a person. And we all know a few people who put down 50 apiece, no problem. If you don't, maybe you are that person.
To meet this demand, the market has gone from simply loaded with wings to being entirely flooded with them: whether it is pizza joints adding them to the menu or new specialists on the block like Atomic or Wingstop joining veterans like BWW and Wings N Things, wings are having a moment. (Not to be confused with Paul McCartney's second band, that frankly never had a moment.)
Americans Are Eating Less Chicken Breasts
Breasts' moment, on the other hand, may have passed. Indeed, the once mighty chicken breast has sagged into disfavor as of late. The 2008 recession changed the way we eat out—we do so less frequently, and often as an extravagance, not as a general rule. As restaurant sales plummet, the days of Applebees and Fridays (to name a couple) ordering millions of breasts a week for their chicken alfredo, honey glazed chicken, and chicken piccata are long gone.
Furthermore, the all-fat-is-bad culture that augmented breast demand in the first place has shifted to embracing certain types of “good” fat and rejecting cardboard flavored diet crazes. Once prized for its lack of fat and cholesterol, the breast’s reduction in demand is now due to something else it generally lacks: flavor. According to the Erik Oosterwijk, a chicken wholesaler, “People get tired of eating boring chicken breast. Fat is back, and more people are starting to realize that.”
What’s Bad for the Breast is Good for the Wing
But, for a couple of different reasons, the same market carnage has not befallen the once ignoble wing, and both have to do with the wing’s initial culinary purpose. First, despite the upside-down pricing, Americans still think of wings as an affordable luxury, a cut of meat that, at least intuitively, should be a cheaper indulgence. While their origins are debated, buffalo wings were no doubt first developed as a way to get a favorable return on the least popular chicken parts in restaurant kitchens, and this reputation has stuck in consumers’ minds. So while steaks, seafood and breasts may seem out-of-reach, wings feel accessible.
Second, wings and football go together like Brady and Belichick. That is not changing. Period.
Let’s recall that the whole purpose of wings, and all other cheap bar fare, is to keep customers ordering the highest margin item in the market: booze. That’s why wings deals are a central piece of many an American happy hour—bring ‘em in for some high margin, spicy, salty leftover chicken parts, and then count the money as they order beer after beer after Irish Car Bomb (what?) after beer.
However, with wholesale wing prices soaring, they are no longer holding up their end of the happy hour bargain. Restaurants can’t use them as the high-margin beer bait customers have come to expect. And that is how you arrive at one of the strangest, oxymoronic marketing phenomena of our moment; the “boneless wing".
Enter the Boneless Chicken Wing
Let’s be clear: the boneless chicken wing is definitively NOT a wing. It is a chopped-up chicken breast, deep fried and sauced like a traditional (we refuse to say “bone-in” since ALL wings are bone-in) wing. For restaurants, the advantages are clear. Breasts are cheaper than wings—this helps to explain how Taco Bell is literally making chicken breasts into tortilla shells—and there are more of them per chicken.
Fun fact: In the heyday of the British Aristocracy, royals ate organ meat and other offal, not the prime cuts of meat. And there was a simple reason for it: Just as the land had untold commoners but only one king, a cow has untold pounds of flesh but only one heart. Well, to bastardize this logic just a bit, a restaurant can only derive four servable wing pieces per chicken (yes, we are aware that chickens only have two wings, but each wing is broken into two sections for sale). So, four wing pieces per chicken. The same math does not hold for the chicken breast, which can be chopped down into untold bite-sized, “wing like” pieces.
Thus, while the formerly unloved wing was a boon to bar and grill owners across the country as a high-margin, thirst-inducing happy hour staple, nowadays, it’s more expense than it’s worth.
This is why the nation’s foremost wing purveyor, BWW, replaced their insanely popular half-off wings Tuesday special with a BOGO on the breast pieces, using the power of the purse to gently force customers away from the now lower margin items.
While there’s no telling if other restaurants will follow (double-breasted) suit, this pricing trend is not going away. Some restaurants are ahead of the curves, others falling behind. But there is one early leader, one lone chain that already forces breasts on its customers along with their wings... it’s called Hooters.