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Growth is coming from old stalwarts, like Wingstop and Buffalo Wild Wings, which have become so ubiquitous with wings that they and Roosters Wings are the only wings brands in the top 200.

Pizza and wings restaurants come back down to Earth

After an out-of-this-world 2020, the two highest-performing categories of the pandemic’s darkest days got a big dose of reality in 2021

Pizza and wings were the clear restaurant winners of 2020, when the pandemic wreaked havoc on everyone from casual dining to fast casual. With online ordering already established and a highly portable product, pizza and wing brands were able to enjoy double-digit sales increases in 2020 even as countless others floundered.  

In 2021, however, these same brands saw revenue flatten out as the rest of the industry recovered market share.

Pizza became ubiquitous in 2020 as consumers sought easily accessible comfort foods at home, with chains like Papa Johns (19% sales growth in 2020) and Domino’s (11%) capitalizing on the trend. But last year, many pizza brands saw positions on the Top 500 slip or sales drop amid shifting consumer mindsets.

“Americans like variety,” said Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of The New England Consulting Group. “They hunkered down and pounded down pizzas in ’20 and they wanted to go back to some of the things that they loved and missed, like hamburgers and other things. And so pizza cooled off in ’21.”

Domino’s saw a pedestrian 3.5% increase in same-store sales for 2021, the second lowest out of the top 10. Elsewhere in the top 25, Pizza Hut’s sales grew 1% while Papa Johns enjoyed 12% growth and Little Caesars saw 3.5% growth.

It’s not to say that something is wrong with pizza. It’s just normalizing into what it was before the pandemic: a weekly meal for most consumers, Stibel said.

“The prognosis for pizza is extraordinary,” he said. “Pizza is … the all-American food. If in doubt, get pizza.”

The highest percentage of brands on the NRN Top 500 are pizza, with 72 total — almost 20 percent.

Wings are another all-American food, the go-to choice for sports fans and other group occasions. But Stibel pointed out that the demand for wings changed during the pandemic. No longer just a special-event food or appetizer, chicken wings have become a meal unto themselves for customers. And that means they still have a lot of room to grow.

“If pizza is middle aged, wings are still teenagers. They're still coming into their own, and wings have a long way to go,” said Stibel.

Much of that growth is coming from old stalwarts, like Wingstop and Buffalo Wild Wings, which have become so ubiquitous with wings that they and Roosters Wings are the only wings brands in the top 200.

Wingstop, after a sizzling 2020 in which its sales grew by 21%, enjoyed a more modest 7.5% same-store sales growth in 2021. Buffalo Wild Wings saw a 17.5% increase in same-store sales. Roosters Wings grew sales by 3.5% last year.

Meanwhile, new players are jumping into the wing game to shake things up.

“There’s a lot of upside, and you've got more participants, everything from the market leaders to ghost kitchens,” Stibel said.

Indeed, chicken wings were one of the go-to menu items for new virtual brands that popped up in the pandemic, as well as for virtual spin-offs of other restaurant chains; Chili’s, Applebee’s and Smokey Bones rolled out virtual chicken-wing concepts, just to name a few.

But there are also emerging wing brands like WNB Factory Wings N Burgers, which entered the Top 500 for the first time this year after seeing an 80.3% increase in sales, and Wings Etc, which moved up the rankings with a 17% increase in sales.

Stibel thinks Wingstop will continue to see the market share go in its favor, despite the emergence of smaller players.

“Many thought it would be hard for Wingstop to eclipse that year of record growth for the brand,” said former CEO Charlie Morrison during the Q4 earnings call. “As we sit here today, we are happy to say we lapped that number.”

While their 2021 may have been less successful than their 2020, it was still a solid year for pizza chicken wing brands. Importantly, they continued to be a part of Americans’ daily routines — ensuring robust business for the years ahead, no matter the competition.

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