Kempner: Arby’s eats Buffalo wings? Why the chicken wing war is on


It used to be that chicken wings didn’t do much good, even when still attached to chickens. Now, it’s the priciest part of our most important bird in Georgia.

That’s kind of crazy if you think about it. A wimpy wing with the bone still in costs more than boneless breast meat?

But restaurants and grocers have figured it out, which might partially explain why Sandy Springs-based meat-marketer Arby’s recently agreed to a nearly $3 billion deal to buy wings-and-beer-and-TVs giant Buffalo Wild Wings.

It turns out that juicy wings in a basket with dipping sauce are part of broader shifts in the way we eat, I’m told by people who know such things.

“It’s a food that adapts well to a lot of the trends we are seeing,” said Charles Winship, a senior analyst for consultant Technomic.

“MangoFire”

It’s shareable (if you don’t mind other peoples’ fingers in your food). It fits with entertaining and as a food to-go for chowing down at home (because we are increasingly becoming homebodies). It can be a snack. And can work for eaters looking for new tastes, because virtually any sauce can be slathered on them. Of course, most of this isn’t going to do your blood vessels any favors.

The sauces and spices are a key differentiator for winning wing loyalty, according to Bonnie Riggs, (bone-in, regular BBQ sauce, blue cheese dip) a veteran analyst at The NPD Group.

That explains why chains have tried to offer pretty much everything. Blackened Voodoo, MangoFire, Lemon Zinger, Buffalo Bliss and ten other sauce flavors are in the lineup for Wing Zone, an Atlanta-based chain. Buffalo Wild Wings has 21 sauces and seasonings, from Desert Heat to Asian Zing.

(My wife’s favorite is a particular lemon-pepper concoction from a local Mexican food restaurant. Go figure.)

Prices and “anatomical fraud”

Wings are a rare bright spot for the crowded restaurant industry, where the restaurant-to-stomach ratio is out of whack, despite the ballooning per-capita size of American bellies.

So more restaurants have been adding wings to menus, according to Technomic.

“Our appetite for wings is growing, and it seems like we can’t get enough of them,” NPD’s Riggs told me.

Such things have an effect. Wholesale prices for wings hit a record high earlier this year, jumping more than 25 percent compared to a year ago.

Wing Zone was among the businesses hit, CEO Matt Friedman told me. “They haven’t figured out how to grow a chicken with four wings on it yet.”

He said costs recently soared to $100 for a case holding about 300 wings. (It was $18 when he and a fraternity buddy launched the business with $500 while still students at the University of Florida in 1993.)

Some restaurants have been passing a portion of the higher wing costs on to consumers. Wing entrees prices jumped more than 10 percent on average compared to a year ago, according to Technomic. That’s a far bigger rise than for most other dishes.

But some chains also tried a sleight of hand: they started emphasizing “boneless wings” on their menus.

Consider this anatomical fraud. Boneless wings aren’t wings at all, I’m told. They are made from other parts of the chicken.

“Chicken wing dilemma”

The switch also led to what Riggs calls “the chicken wing dilemma.” Will bone-in aficionados be willing to switch to boneless, which tend to cost less and offer restaurants higher profit margins? Or will people just order smaller orders of wings the way the Almighty intended them?

“Boneless are a little more convenient to eat,” Winship of Technomic charitably offered. “It kind of hurts me to say that as someone who prefers bone-in.”

This sordid situation might become less of an issue soon.

While wings remain the priciest part of a chicken, wholesale wing prices in recent weeks have dropped back to levels similar to last year at this time, according to federal data I perused.

That’s good news just before the heart of wing time: college bowl games, the Super Bowl and March Madness.

Bring on the sauces.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Business

Amazon raises monthly Prime membership rate
Amazon raises monthly Prime membership rate

The monthly membership fee for Amazon Prime rose Friday from $10.99 to $12.99. Company officials said the annual membership will remain at $99 dollars. Monthly customers do not get access to Amazon Video, which costs $8.99 a month. The last Prime subscription hike came in 2014, when Amazon increased its yearly membership from $79 to $99. The e-commerce...
Top tips for selling your old stuff on eBay (and actually making cash)
Top tips for selling your old stuff on eBay (and actually making cash)

Too much clutter, too little money, too many gifts you didn't like... an eBay auction is one of the simplest solutions to all three issues. If your trash might be someone else's treasure, an eBay business is simple to start and accessible to just about anyone. "It has low start-up costs and it can be started out of your home," noted the ...
After mauling, Delta tightens emotional support animal restrictions
After mauling, Delta tightens emotional support animal restrictions

In the wake of a horrific mauling of a Delta passenger by another traveler’s emotional support dog last year, Delta is tightening restrictions on emotional support animals in flight. To travel with an emotional support animal, starting March 1 Delta Air Lines will require a “confirmation of animal training” form signed by the...
Metro Atlanta, Georgia officials to present united front to nab Amazon
Metro Atlanta, Georgia officials to present united front to nab Amazon

Georgia’s full-fledged competition for Amazon’s second headquarters has entered a new and unpredictable phase now that it’s on the tech giant’s short list. But the state’s hunt for another major headquarters three years ago could provide valuable clues into its strategy for winning the project. Georgia’s long...
Kempner: Amazon, thanks for sort of picking Atlanta, but …
Kempner: Amazon, thanks for sort of picking Atlanta, but …

Amazon, it’s not that we’re ungrateful for Atlanta being one of your Top 20 choices for your second headquarters and 50,000 delicious jobs. We’ll hold off celebrating or feeling like we’ve gotten some kind of affirmation until we figure out if you just like us a good bit or really love us. Yes, we do think we are all that...
More Stories