Great ResignationInflationSupply ChainsLeadership

Restaurants scramble to serve enough chicken wings ahead of Super Bowl Sunday

February 10, 2022, 4:15 PM UTC
Updated February 10, 2022, 4:18 PM UTC

There’s a crunch on chicken wings coming ahead of Super Bowl Sunday that has the finger food favorite near all-time high prices for the time of year.

Americans are projected to eat massive amounts of the game day snack, about 1.42 billion wings. That’s tied with last year for a record. But this year, there are signs that getting those volumes to consumers is harder and supplies are tighter. Add to that the turmoil that has been dogging U.S. food supply chains, from labor shortfalls to missing ingredients and soaring costs all around.

Restaurants have been scrambling. Some are getting ready to switch to frozen wings in case they run out of fresh. Others are reducing the number of wings that come in an order. In a sign of the times, companies like the one that owns Chili’s are booking their chicken orders into the summer and beyond to lay claim to whatever’s available.

As Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, likes to point out: chickens unfortunately only have two wings.

“We’re definitely seeing this upward movement on the price of things. That’s on chicken and chicken wings,” Andy Wiederhorn, Chief Executive Officer of FAT Brands Inc., which owns Twin Peaks and Native Grill & Wings, said in an interview.

Wings in January were the priciest for the time of year in government data that goes back to 2010, before easing below last year’s record prices. Currently, they’re $2.61 a pound wholesale, which compares to a five-year average price of around $1.76 before the pandemic.

Popularity contest

An unprecedented surge in chicken popularity is at the root of wing inflation. Nearly all types of restaurants have seen a drop in locations over the past four years except one, called “Southern,” and that’s because that category includes fried chicken joints like KFC, Popeyes, Bojangles and Raising Cane’s. Those types of restaurants have expanded 18%, compared with an 8% drop overall, according to industry researcher Datassential.

Still, there will be wings this weekend. That’s no accident. Poultry producers have been sending more birds to be cut up for parts instead of selling whole chickens, Super said, so there are more to go around.

There are also signs that wings at grocery stores are getting too expensive for some shoppers, which would cushion supplies. Grocers are devoting more space in refrigerators to thighs and tenders because consumers are looking for better bargains than wings, said Mark Jordan, senior livestock and poultry economist at LEAP Market Analytics in Jonesboro, Arkansas. At a store near him, the hot bar “has pretty much been deactivated” due to pricey wings, he said. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture sees chicken output edging up 1.3% in 2022. Pilgrim’s Pride, the second biggest producer which reported earnings Wednesday, said that’s not enough given demand.

On Super Bowl weekend, there will be constraints on wing mania. For example, football fans ordering from Domino’s Pizza Inc. may notice just eight boneless wings per order versus 10 previously.

The cut’s an effort to “recognize some of these costs that we’re incurring,” said CEO Richard Allison.

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