As America Devours More Wings Than Ever, Restaurants Double Down

America’s appetite for chicken wings appears unending and restaurant chains of all sorts are rushing to feed it.

It might seem impossible, but the pandemic actually made one of the country’s favorite menu items even more popular. After governments forced restaurants to close and curtail indoor dining to slow Covid-19, takeout and delivery orders took off. That sparked a surge in purchases of wings, which are good for delivery because they don’t get soggy.

The effects of the boom have been widespread. During Covid, the value of many kinds of meat initially surged, only to give away much of those gains. However, wing prices kept on climbing to an all-time high, including a 20% increase just this year that’s accelerated ahead of Super Bowl LV on Sunday. Meanwhile, the stocks of restaurants like Wingstop Inc. are soaring. And sit-down chains such as Chili’s and Applebee’s started their own brands dedicated to the deep-fried bird parts.

As America Devours More Wings Than Ever, Restaurants Double Down

And now comes the Super Bowl, the biggest wing-eating day of the year. Despite the pandemic limiting large parties for the NFL’s title game, the number of chicken wings consumed is expected to increase by 2% to a record 1.42 billion, according to the National Chicken Council. A week later is Valentine’s Day, usually a top five occasion for wing purchases, according to Wingstop.

“Wings are just a hot item,” said BTIG analyst Peter Saleh. “It’s shareable, and it delivers well.”

Chicken is only adding to a marvelous run that saw it pass beef as America’s favorite meat in the early 1990s. Per capita consumption of the bird grew to an estimated 96.1 pounds in 2020—a jump of more than 60% from three decades ago—compared to 58.9 pounds of beef, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. This year, chicken eating is expected to grow 0.5%, while beef declines.

As America Devours More Wings Than Ever, Restaurants Double Down

Increasing demand helped push wing prices to a record of $2.71 a pound this week, according to the USDA. Meanwhile, wholesale beef prices have fallen about 50% from a record high in May to near their three-year average. Demand for chicken wings usually tapers off around $2, but not this year, according to Russ Whitman, senior vice president at commodity researcher Urner Barry. “Wings are going up day after day.”

Wings have done so well that purveyors are now experimenting with cheaper chicken thighs to offset rising prices. Wingstop started testing the menu option late last year.

The thigh “has a lot of the characteristics of our existing bone in chicken wings, and that they cook in about the same amount of time,” Wingstop Chief Executive Officer Charlie Morrison told analysts in November. Thighs develop “that crispy skin, but the juiciness that you want.”

Wingstop’s stock has tripled since the pandemic hit the U.S. in the middle of March. And while other chains shutter locations and lay off staff, the company opened about 140 new stores last year, pushing its total past 1,500.

Demand shows no signs of slowing down at Atomic Wings, a chain with about a dozen locations mostly in New York and Maryland. In some cases, customers are content to wait two hours during busy sports-watching days for orders, according to CEO Zak Omar. In the pandemic, sales have doubled at some outlets, he said.

“The wing frenzy has always been there, at least for the last couple of years,” said Omar, who is also planning to try the overlooked chicken thigh in an attempt to lower costs. “Covid has just brought it more to light.”

Domino’s Pizza Inc. revamped its wings and added new sauces to its lineup in July. By the fall, the company said it didn’t need to advertise them because they were selling out without being promoted. “We’re selling all the wings that we can get our hands on,” CEO Ritch Allison said.

As lockdowns continue, Hooters of America is testing a pared-down menu, nixing nachos and some salads, to spotlight its wings, according to CEO Sal Melilli. Hoots Wings, a restaurant concept created by the company in 2017, has new-found interest from franchisees wanting to open one.

Chili’s and Maggiano’s, both owned by Brinker International Inc., launched It’s Just Wings out of 1,000 locations in June with the goal of using kitchen space idled by the pandemic. The brand, which is delivered via DoorDash, is on pace to hit $150 million in sales in its first year, which would account for about 5% of annual revenue. Now the company plans to expand to takeout and put more marketing dollars behind the concept with demand accelerating. 

“We believe there’s significant upside,” Brinker CEO Wyman Roberts recently said. “We’re focused on building it into a strong sustainable brand.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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