Chicken Wing Craze Sends Prices Sky High
It's getting more expensive to be a wing man - or woman - these days. The skyrocketing cost of chicken wings is causing restaurant and tavern owners to raise menu prices and threatening to put some out of business.
"Chicken wings once were so cheap," says Ken Moran, owner of Rochester, N.Y.'s Jeremiah's Tavern, which has had to increase menu prices twice in the past year. "It was an attempt to use all the parts of the bird. Now it's reversed. They've gotten pretty crazy in terms of popularity."
Wings "used to be a throwaway item," says Andy Howard, head of purchasing and product development for the Texas-based Wingstop chain. "The poultry guys couldn't even give it away. Now prices have gone through the roof."
The primary factor driving up wing prices is the growing number of restaurants, including many national chains, that are adding wings to their offerings, says Richard Lobb, spokesman for the Washington-based chicken industry trade group the National Chicken Council.
According to the Agriculture Department, the average wholesale price of wings in 2009 was $1.47 a pound, up 39 percent from 2008 and the highest it has been, adjusted for inflation, since the mid-1970s. Lobb says it's not a matter of raising more chickens. The nation's producers turned out 9 billion birds in 2009, he says. Other than for wings, the recession has slowed demand, and the overall price for chicken has been soft. "As expensive as wings are, they cannot carry the entire bird," he says.
Steve DeLorme, who with his father, Skip, operates Country Sweet Chicken&Ribs in Rochester, cites spiraling costs as one reason for closing two locations last month.
Nickey Manley of Rochester has a meal of wings about once a week. She looks for wings price specials at local taverns. "That guides where I'm going to eat," she says. "(JD) Oxford's on Fridays? I'm there. 50-cent wings."
Wings increasingly can be found everywhere from neighborhood bars and taverns to national franchises, including KFC, Hooters, Pizza Hut and 7-Eleven.
"We are getting hit hard" by increased costs, says Larry Schaefer, founder of the Wisconsin restaurant chain Legend Larry's. "The easy answer is raise your prices. . . . (But) You don't want to keep your customers from coming because of price."
To offset wing prices, numerous restaurants are adding "boneless chicken wings" made of breast meat, he says.
"The boneless wing is a much higher profit margin and it also attracts a lot more people who don't care to eat things on bones," he says.