If Buffalo sauce were merely an accompaniment for chicken wings, its long-running popularity would be remarkable enough. The condiment, which was created in a bar in Buffalo, N.Y. in the 1960s, turned underutilized chicken parts into one of the most popular appetizers, bar bites and snacks of all time. The National Chicken Council reported that Americans consumed nearly one billion servings of wings last year and estimates that wing consumption will grow by 2% this year.
But its influence goes far beyond its origins. Buffalo sauce became a staple on chain menus over two decades ago, as adventurous diners experimented with assertive flavors. Its homegrown approachability and use of butter to round and balance out the heat lured spice-phobes and served as a gateway to emerging global flavors. Thanks to the COVID-19 shutdown, it has gotten a new lease on life as delivery-friendly chicken wing sales have taken off like a rocket, and corporate chefs have rediscovered its patron-pleasing versatility in a broad range of new dishes.
Entrées and hand helds. Recent menu additions cover the waterfront of dayparts and meal parts. Allen, Tx.-based, 21-location Cowboy Chicken puts its signature woodfire rotisserie chicken breast on a bun with choice of blue cheese or ranch dressing.
The sauce also makes cross-cultural appearances on items like Papa John’s Grilled Buffalo Chicken Papadia. The item, which resembles the offspring of a calzone and a piadina, is touted as a less messy, easier-to-eat alternative to conventional wings.
Buffalo wakes up the breakfast menu at Norms Jr., an offshoot of Southern California diner Norms. The new Buffalo chicken scramble combines scrambled eggs, crispy chicken breast with grilled peppers, onions and tomatoes topped with jack and cheddar cheeses.
For lunch or dinner, customers can choose Sweetgreen’s Buffalo Chicken Bowl, left, with special touches like za’atar breadcrumbs, Cajun chicken and Sweetgreen’s hot sauce.
Pasta and pizza. Menu researchers at Datassential report that the use of protein as a topper for mac and cheese, as with the Buffalo chicken mac at Noodles & Company, has increased 83% in the past four years.
Romano’s Macaroni Grill jumped on the trend with their Buffalo chicken parmesan, a limited-time special this summer that topped the traditional pounded-and-breaded breast with melted mozzarella and the titular sauce. It was served over capellini pasta.
Virtually all pizza chains both large and small serve a Buffalo-accented pie. Among the majors, Papa John’s turns the heat way up with Fiery Buffalo Chicken option, while competitor Pizza Hut claims its Buffalo Chicken Pizza “tastes like a football game feels.” Meanwhile, high-flying Domino’s announced a new-and-improved Buffalo sauce for its pizzas, wings and sandwiches.
Pie Five, the Texas-based pioneer of the fast-casual pizza segment, serves a Buffalo Chicken Pizza with unconventional touches like cheddar cheese and banana peppers, while the Southern Heat Pizza from Your Pie, a regional fast-casual player based in Athens, Ga., lives up to its name with Buffalo sauce, jalapeños and red onions.
Plants and vegetables. Los Angeles-based virtual restaurant company, Hello Salted is using its venture-capital funding to build the restaurant group of the future with a portfolio of better-for-you brands available for takeout or delivery. Its Cauliflower Pizza operation promotes the signature Buffalo ranch pizza topped with Buffalo cauliflower wings and vegan ranch dressing. On a similarly cruciferous note, The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grill recently introduced hand-breaded Buffalo cauliflower tossed in choice of wing sauce.
The fall menu at BWW now boasts a Buffalo wedge salad that marries a romaine lettuce wedge with a fried chicken tender drizzled in Buffalo sauce. Speaking of chicken, KFC has been testing Beyond Fried Chicken boneless wings in selected markets since last summer, and Veggie Grill’s newly released items tout conscious comfort food and feature plant-based Buffalo wings.
And more wings. The item that started it all continues to sizzle. It’s Just Wings, the virtual delivery concept launched by Chili’s Grill & Bar in June, is on course to realize a hefty $150 million in sales in its first year; the company says that of the 11 sauces on offer, Buffalo is number one. Chuck E. Cheese’s units have been cooking up Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings in their kitchens, and in early results, the delivery-only concept reports that pepperoni pizza and Buffalo wings are its top sellers.
Nancy Kruse, President of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of Linked In’s Top 100 Influencers in the US, she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the Linked In website.