Bad to the bone: winging it

Bad to the bone: winging it

The scrawny chicken wing – once considered a scrap part – is now packing a premium price, more expensive than the boneless chicken breast

When is a wing not a wing? When it’s a boneless wing. Across the country, from Miami to Minneapolis, a new phenomenon is appearing on menus: a piece of chicken breast that’s fried and smothered in sauce, then sold under the reality-bending name “boneless wing.” The reason for this anatomically-incorrect marketing upset is the topsy-turvy nature of wholesale chicken prices. The scrawny wing – once considered a scrap part – is now packing a premium price, more expensive than the meaty skinless boneless chicken breast. For seven of the past 11 months, the wholesale price of wings has surpassed that of breasts, the reversal of a market trend in which breasts are king. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average wholesale price for chicken wings was around $1.48 a pound in September; skinless boneless breasts sold for $1.21 a pound.

In the twelve months preceding that, chicken wings priced at 94 cents, breasts were $1.15. Those numbers were more or less reflected consistently through last summer. Consumers won’t necessarily see any savings in supermarket meat departments, which are attempting to keep their margins on chicken breast. Breasts are selling at retail for $2.80 on average nationally, according to the USDA; that’s 83 cents more expensive than the retail price of wings. On the other hand, some retailers are taking advantage of the flip-flop in wholesale prices, and are offering sales on breast meat. As in so many other instances, the recession is the culprit for the change in prices. Restaurants normally purchase large quantities of breast meat, but leaner economic times caused them to reduce their orders when consumers stopped eating out, which in turn caused breast prices to drop off. The demand for wings, on the other, has stayed high. And the explosion of restaurants that feature wings as a centerpiece has also added to wing demand. In addition to the ubiquitous Hooters, the restaurant market now has Wing Zone, Wingstop, Atomic Wings, and the biggest of the newbies, Buffalo Wild Wings, which reported a 27% bump in its business during the first six months of 2009. Experts in the industry say that as the economy starts to make a comeback, there will likely be a return to traditional pricing for wing and breast meat.

Wings’ high prices have also led to the growth an irksome interloper some wing purists see as a pretender at best and an unloved illegitimate offspring at worst: the boneless wing. Widely marketed by restaurants, ‘boneless wings,’ of course, aren’t really wings at all: cuts of breast meat are deep-fried like wings, and then served with the same sauces. Six years ago, Buffalo Wild Wings began selling boneless wings; the menu item represents 19% of sales (compare that with regular wings, which account for 20% of sales). This year, as wing prices went up (and breast prices fell), other chains followed suit. This summer, the restaurant chain Wingstop began offering boneless wings in all 450 of its stores. And hamburger chain Wendy’s, which doesn’t even sell regular chicken wings, has added boneless wings to its menu. Boneless wings are a way for restaurants that sell their “wing image” to bring in consumers who normally don’t like the messiness of wings, which need to be chewed off the bone. And boneless wings in some ways are carrying regular wings on their breast, so to speak, as the expense of lower-cost breast meat can offset the higher cost of wings. Traditionalists are unimpressed.

“Buffalo wings” are believed to have first appeared in Buffalo, New York during the 1960s, when a bar owner is said to have taken the generally uneaten parts, cooked them, and added sauce. They are now a staple American finger food, and a mainstay during football season at bars. Prices on chicken wings will likely continue to climb at least until February’s Super Bowl, when lots of wings are sold (and eaten), and prices are at their highest. And demand appears poised to stay strong. Restaurant giant Pizza Hut has announced that it will expand the number of stores where its wings menu, WingStreet, are available. Currently the Hut sells wings in 3,000 stores; company execs say the menu will be added to another 2,000 of its stores.