It’s not quite true to say that chicken wings have become as rare as hen’s teeth, but pandemic-fueled changes in habits have turned this fun restaurant item into a hard-to-find and painful-to-pay-for commodity.
“I asked all over the country – Primesource, Sysco … I go to four restaurant depots, in Andover, Boston, I just want to find wings,” said Maher Abbas, owner of Wow Fried Chicken and Subs on Depot Street in Concord, describing recent efforts to restock his restaurant.
Even when he finds them, the price of chicken wings has gone crazy, more than other parts of the bird.
“Wings, the price is double, but the thigh is going up like 15, 20 cents, no problem,” he said.
As a result, he has had to remove many wing items from his menu. For the moment, if you want them you have to order other pieces as well.
“A customer comes here, he wants wings with a beer, I give him the 10-piece for $12,” he said. Even then, Abbas is losing money: “It costs me like $11, after that we need to fry it, bread it, the plate, the sauce … we lose like three dollars.”
Abbas is far from alone. The national chain Buffalo Wild Wings, which has four restaurants in New Hampshire, said on Twitter last month that many of its sports bars have a limited supply, and Dallas-based restaurant chain Wingstop is testing a bone-in thigh product, hoping to take up some of the demand.
Acquiring a supply of wings is even harder for independent restaurants like Wow Fried Chicken, which lack the buying power of big chains.
The shortage is due to several reasons. One is wild weather caused by climate change, particularly the record cold snap in Texas – a major source of the nation’s chicken meat – that disrupted production and caused prices to skyrocket. Another is production holdups at huge chicken processing plants that have been affected by COVID-19 outbreaks.
Most important, however, is a pandemic-fueled change in American eating habits.
An increase in takeout food during lockdowns has shifted some consumption from fancy restaurants to pizza joints and comfort food eateries, leading to a huge increase in chicken wing consumption.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a 29% reduction in November and a 24% reduction in December in year-over-year inventories of chicken wings kept in cold storage. Restaurants and retailers are selling so many they can’t keep a backup supply anymore.
Wholesale prices of chicken wings have nearly tripled in the past year from around $1 a pound to as much as $3.
New Hampshire’s farmers, however, won’t benefit much from that hike because the state’s small poultry industry is focused on producing eggs rather than meat.
The 2017 Census of Agriculture counted just 156 state farms that sold meat chickens, which was only one-tenth the number of farms that sold eggs. And all but six of those “meat bird” farms were very small, selling fewer than 2,000 birds a year.
This isn’t the first time chicken wings have been affected by changing foodie habits. Wings were an overlook food extra, worth far less than other parts of the chicken, until a restaurateur in Buffalo, N.Y. (there is a dispute about exactly who, how and when) deep-fried them with hot sauce in the 1970s.
News of “Buffalo Wings” spread and when the restaurant chain Hooter’s was founded in 1983, chicken wings were at the center of its menu. In 1994, Domino’s and Pizza Hut rolled wings out nationwide, starting the linkage between pizza and wings that continues today. And over time they have become associated with sports tailgating, to the point that suppliers joke there are two seasons for chicken wings: Super Bowl and the rest of the year.
At Wow Fried Chicken and Subs, Abbas will keep struggling to provide the smallest but, in some people’s opinions, tastiest bit of the chicken.
“Customers understand now wings, the price is really expensive,” Abbas said. “But if I don’t have wings, he’ll go find another place.”