Chicken Wings Are Hot, and Chicken-Wing Prices Are Hotter

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Wingmen and wing nuts everywhere: the days of cheap chicken wings may be ending. After a year when chicken-wing prices were surprisingly mild, wings are especially hot in demand now, and prices are expected to remain at or near record highs for months to come.

Unlike crops, there’s no particular “harvest” season for animals. Nonetheless, there are particular times of the year when prices spike for certain meat products. Bacon, for instance, soars in demand — and therefore, also in price — during the mid- to late summer, which could otherwise be known as “BLT season.” People want bacon more then because that’s when tomatoes are the freshest, the most delicious and also the cheapest (especially if you grow them in your backyard).

The demand for — and therefore, also the price of — chicken wings, on the other hand, doesn’t spike because of its relationship to the cycle of any vegetable or fruit, but because of human habit, and the grumbling desire of American sports fans. When do chicken-wing prices soar? Well, we’re at the height of the wing season right now, actually.

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Peak season for chicken wings is, by no small coincidence, also peak season for many sports lovers. It’s January through March, a span when the NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl and March Madness take place. The National Chicken Council estimated that 1.25 billion chicken wings were eaten on Super Bowl Sunday, and that 23% of people who watched the game ate wings — a few, or perhaps a few dozen, each.

A steep rise in demand for chicken wings took place three years ago, when, it’s been reported, the average wholesale price of wings was $1.47 per lb., up 39% from 2008. Adjusted for inflation, that was the highest price for wings since the 1970s.

Last year was an exceptionally affordable one for wings, which averaged 99¢ per lb., dipping below 80¢ in May and June (wings’ low season, apparently). Since the fall of 2011, though, wing prices have flown sharply northward, doubling over the six-month period ending in mid-January. At their peak last month, wing prices hit $1.99 per lb.

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Industry publication Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN) reports that through March 2012, wing prices will remain at least 30¢ per lb. more expensive than last year.

How does this translate into the price of a dozen wings at the local pub or chain restaurant? As NRN points out, some wing-specialty chains, such as East Coast Wings and Quaker Steak & Lube, locked in purchase prices for wings last year, when they were low, to hedge against the likelihood of soaring prices. That strategy should help them keep menu prices down, at least for the near future.

Despite the sharp rise in wing prices at the end of 2011, the Buffalo Wild Wings chain wound up riding the popularity of wings to a 33% increase in fourth-quarter earnings, prompting shares of the company to rise 16% last week. If any restaurant understands the importance of sports — football in particular — for wings sales, it’s Buffalo Wild Wings. Last summer, when the NFL lockout was still in effect, the chain started a “Save Our Season” petition on Facebook. Anyone who signed the petition would be entitled to six free wings if the lockout ended by July 20. (Turns out, the lockout ended just a few days after that deadline.)

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In any event, it’ll be hard for Buffalo Wild Wings to repeat its 2011 performance, especially because wing prices by the pound have hit the ceiling — and price increases on restaurant menus seem inevitable. At the beginning of last year, Buffalo Wild Wings’ menu prices were hiked 2.4%, and that was while wing prices remained low. For the sake of wing-loving diners everywhere, let’s hope the price hikes this year, which could be major, take place until after March Madness is over.

Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.