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

Dec 14, 2017
Nick Arroyo
Ahh, chicken wings. Wings have become the priciest part of chickens, a giant part of Georgia’s agricultural business. (NICK ARROYO/AJC staff)

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.