The Latest Chicken Wing Crisis: Too Much Meat on the Bone

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Despite the alarmist headlines that surfaced around the time of the Super Bowl, there is no real shortage of chicken wings in the marketplace. But sellers are facing an odd wing problem lately: The chickens they come from are getting bigger and bigger.

Why is that a problem? Bigger chickens equate to bigger wings—and more meat per wing provided by restaurants and wholesale suppliers. The result is that “five wings yield more ounces of chicken than six used to,” as Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith told stock analysts recently, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Bigger birds, which have been produced by years of breeding improvements, are great for businesses that sell chicken breasts and thighs by the pound. Wings, on the other hand, are generally sold to consumers not per pound but per unit. As the amount of meat per unit has increased, so have prices. A rise in demand due to the popularity of chicken wings among diners, as well as a hike in feed prices due to last summer’s drought, have also pushed up per-wing prices.

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The most obvious way consumers are affected is with escalating wing prices in supermarkets and restaurants. Buffalo Wild Wings, for instance, hiked prices across the board by 4% last fall. But the situation may also change how wings are listed and sold at restaurants, the results of which may cause diners to grumble in aggravation, if not hunger.

As the trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News reported last month, Buffalo Wild Wings has been testing a new wing pricing system in several dozen locations around the country. Diners no longer choose a dozen wings, or 20 wings, or any specific number of wings. Instead, the menu lists wings according to Single, Double, or Triple orders, or perhaps in sizes like Snack, Platter, and Meal.

A final decision regarding how wings will be priced and sold is expected to be made sometime in the second quarter of 2013, and a tweaked menu will be introduced in August. Smith told NRN that the test pricing systems “haven’t been getting pushback” from customers, so long as the restaurants have done a good job of educating diners how they work. “I think a lot of it has to do with how we explain to our guests … whether we’re serving five wings for a small order or six wings and making sure that the guest understands,” said Smith.

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What this means to consumers is that the next time you try to order a dozen wings at a restaurant, the waiter may respond by asking, “Um, do you mean Small, Medium, or Large?”