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Chicken wing chains respond to higher costs

Operators adjust with new pricing and marketing as football season approaches

Summer is a fairly slow time for chicken wing sales, as consumers are grilling other meats and aren’t parked in front of the television watching football, which is the preferred venue for eating wings.

But wing prices, typically low at this time of year, have hit an all-time high, and are expected to rise throughout the fall and peak around Super Bowl Sunday in January — the biggest day for wing consumption. 

Some operators are responding by deemphasizing bone-in wings and promoting tenders or boneless wings made from breast meat.

Last week, DeWayne Dove, vice president of supply chain at purchasing cooperative SpenDifference, said jumbo wings were selling for $2.07 per pound wholesale — a record high.

“Typically, we would not see this spike until late September, early October,” Dove said, adding that at the end of September last year, wings were $1.75 per pound.

“We’re already 32 cents above that.” 

Retail prices reflect a similar spike: the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that whole wing prices this week averaged $2.62 per pound, compared with $1.85 a year ago. 

Dove attributed the hike to demand outstripping production. Chicken production overall is up three-quarters of a percentage point compared to a year ago, but demand is up 2 percentage points.

Higher prices have hit the bottom lines of large chicken-wing chains.

Buffalo Wild Wings

Buffalo Wild Wings reported that profit for the second quarter fell 62.9 percent, and Wingstop said the price spike had increased the cost of sales at company-owned restaurants by 410 basis points.

Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings has responded by changing its weekly Tuesday wing promotion to focus on boneless wings at its 607 company-owned restaurants. There were a total of 1,187 domestic Buffalo Wild Wings locations at the end of last year.

Buffalo Wings & Rings, which has 58 domestic units, is hoping to cash in on that fact, continuing with a Tuesday value wing pricing and “hoping someone will get a burger or quesadilla or salad,” to offset the high cost of wings, CEO Nader Masadeh said.

Although he’s also trying to convert customers from bone-in wings to boneless ones, “we have not pushed that avenue very much,” he said, because different types of wings tend to appeal to different customers. 

“If a customer is coming in to eat wings, they are coming in for [either] bone-in or boneless. Their heart is set on one or the other,” Masadeh said.

However, 108-unit Wing Zone is trying to convince customers to convert by offering boneless wings at a better value.

For takeout orders, the chain’s Buddy Pack now offers 24 boneless wings or 20 bone-in wings. Similarly, the Family Pack is 36 boneless wings and 30 bone-in wings, and the Party Pack is 60 boneless wings and 50 bone-in wings.

Wing Zone

Wing Zone CEO Matt Friedman said the chain was also changing the types of wings offered to justify higher prices.

The chain has switched from medium-sized wings to jumbo wings, and converted all locations to a never-frozen product. Previously, around a third of the restaurants used frozen wings.

“So now we have some marketing opportunities there,” Friedman said.

In July, Wing Zone started promoting all three of the chicken types with the tagline “Bigger tender, better boneless, jumbo wing.”

The chain also changed order sizes, from seven-piece and 10-piece orders to six, eight and 10, now charging for eight pieces what they used to charge for 10.

To further differentiate the chain, Friedman said it was working on new menu items, including a breaded “Zesty Wing,” which was introduced in Wing Zone’s Panama and Guatemala locations. The item will be offered at a premium price as a limited-time offer starting in October and running through the Super Bowl.

Wing Zone also has tested a char-grilled wing that it hopes to roll out in 2018. 

Meanwhile, Wingstop is rolling out what it calls split-menu pricing across its 922-unit system. The strategy of charging less for bone-in wings has been in test at 10 restaurants in Las Vegas since April.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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