At America’s sports bars, chicken wings are as essential to March Madness as man-to-man defense and the three-point shot.
But as this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament rolls ahead, the cruel economics of the chicken wing is squeezing restaurant chains and putting upward pressure on prices for customers.
With breeding advances, the size of America’s chickens — and their wings — is relentlessly rising. As CEO Sally Smith of Buffalo Wild Wings recently explained to stock analysts: “Five wings yield more ounces of chicken than six used to.”
Sounds like good news for wing joints, right? No clucking way. Chains like Buffalo Wild Wings sell by the unit — a six-piece plate with fries and a beer, anyone? — but buy by the pound. Take one wing away, even if the rest are meatier, and customers might not be happy.
The average chicken carcass nowadays is almost 50 percent bigger than it was 30 years ago. But, as agribusiness consultant Len Steiner put it, an 8-pound bruiser of a bird “still has only two wings.”
Wholesale wing prices soared 76 percent on average in 2012 over 2011, hitting highs not seen in at least 20 years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
And demand is growing, Even fast-food behemoth McDonald’s is testing wings.