The high-flying popularity of Buffalo wings is making chicken-parts price history.
"It's very crazy," said Keith Rosenthal, a top executive with the Bojangles restaurant chain. "I don't think it ever happened before, but . . . wings actually cost more per pound than breasts."
Wings -- mere meat scraps, clinging to tiny bones -- fetched a paltry 29.5 cents a pound in 1985. At the time, a plump, juicy chicken breast topped $1.12 a pound at wholesale. This year, prices for chicken breasts, long the king of chicken parts, sagged below 69 cents.
Wing prices soared to 82 cents.
"The engine that's driven this train . . . is the pizza companies," said Bill Roenigk, a vice-president with the National Broiler Council. "The demand keeps going up. This has been a little bit of a surprise."
Buffalo wings, long a zesty staple at sports bars and casual restaurants, hit the national pizza circuit in October when Domino's Pizza added wings to the menu. The pizza chain, with 4,300 U.S. stores, now sells about 10 million wings a week.
Pizza Hut, selling pizza from 8,600 spots across the country, followed Domino's lead.
"All of a sudden, there's a strong market for . . . wings," Rosenthal said.
The cost of wings took off with demand, and restaurants are in a flap, trying to scratch out a profit.
Bojangles upped its wing price from $1.98 to $2.49 for eight wings.
"We took it up because we were getting a shellacking on it," said Rosenthal, senior director of purchasing and product development at Bojangles' Charlotte, N.C., headquarters. "It is still not a very high-profit item for us."
At roughly 4.5 wings to the pound, they're apparently barely breaking even, what with shipping, processing, seasoning, cooking, packaging and such. In the Charlotte area, Pizza Hut sells a dozen wings for $4, and Domino's gets $3.99 for 10 wings.
"We've never seen any kind of success like this," said Tim McIntyre, a spokesman -- and vegetarian -- at Domino's headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich. "It doesn't compare to anything that we've ever done before."
The new zing in wings has poultry producers -- a $2.3-billion North Carolina industry -- crowing.
"Not all that long ago, wings . . . were difficult to sell and were much cheaper," said Archie Schaffer, a spokesman for Tyson Foods, the nation's largest poultry company. "Now, we are having trouble keeping all of our customers supplied. We hope it continues that way."
Tyson processes 60 million wings a week. Nationwide, U.S. chicken farms will put about 12 billion wings on the market this year.
That's nearly a wing a week for every man, woman and child in the United States.
Used to be, most of those wings hit supermarket shelves as part of the whole bird or at least still stuck to the chicken breast. Now the wing is the thing.
"The number of wings we're doing hasn't really increased that much," Schaffer said. "The big difference of course is what we are doing with the wings . . . . They're going into a lot higher-scale product, and we're getting a lot more for them."
As the story goes, hot-sauce-coated wings were invented back in 1964 at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., as a late-night munchie to keep some local poker players quiet. Wings soon became a party hit, especially for Christmas and the Super Bowl.
Year after year, the winter wing party season pushed prices up in December and January. But this year, prices stayed up, as pizza's heavy hitters discovered wings.
Said Mack Patterson, owner of 20 Charlotte-area Domino's Pizza parlors, "We have people who never order pizzas . . . but order 100 wings."
For clues to the next hit in chicken parts, look to Asia.
"They were in love with our wings long before American consumers discovered them," said the Broiler Council's Roenigk. "They also like the feet."