In other words, not just wings, but chicken in general. Or, as Bojangles put it in a recent tweet about their tenders: “we’re experiencing a system-wide shortage :( But they will be back soon!”
It seems the poultry paucity has arrived, heralded by a series of fast-food executives describing in earnings calls their stores’ struggles to stock enough chicken — nuggets, tenders, wings, patties, all shapes and sizes — to keep pace with legions of peckish Americans.
“Demand for the new sandwich has been so strong that, coupled with general tightening in domestic chicken supply, our main challenge has been keeping up with that demand,” said David Gibbs, CEO of Yum Brands, whose KFC restaurants recently rolled out a new fried-chicken sandwich.
Charles R. Morrison, chairman and CEO of Wingstop, said this week that “Suppliers are struggling, just as many in our industry are, to hire people to process chicken, thus placing unexpected pressure on the amount of birds that can be processed and negatively affecting supply of all parts of the chicken in the U.S., not just wings.”
Chicken has for years been the most popular meat in the United States and experts and analysts have cited several reasons for the current deficit. Some are related to the coronavirus — pandemic-spurred disruptions in the market and supply chain and an increased demand for a comfort food that is takeout- or delivery-friendly. Others, industry watchers say, include increased competition, volatile feed prices and even the deadly winter storms that swept over the South in February, halting the work of chicken processors.
And then there’s the proliferation of the fried chicken sandwich. The Washington Post dubbed 2019 the Year of the Chicken Sandwich — and for good reason. Popeyes kicked things off that August, releasing a new chicken sandwich that quickly took over the Internet. Then the virality hit the streets, with eager customers queuing up for blocks to buy a sandwich. Just over two weeks after the new menu item dropped, Popeyes announced it had sold out.
On an earnings call this week, McDonald’s USA President Joe Erlinger didn’t mention shortages but said sandwich sales are “exceeding our projections” and announced the chain was at “the beginning of our multiyear chicken journey.”
But the poultry industry’s problems run much deeper than a shortage of the finished product. If 2019 was YOTCS, 2020 was the year that Big Meat’s labor issues became the subject of national headlines.
Investigative reporting and lawsuits have revealed life-threatening conditions that workers in meat and poultry plants have endured during the pandemic, and they’ve prompted criticism that the industry is more concerned with profit than with safety. The industry, meanwhile, has argued that it has invested in protections and that facility operations were essential.
The Trump administration also allowed 15 poultry plants to increase slaughter line speeds, which both boosts production and makes it more difficult for workers to maintain space between one another. It also appears to have accelerated coronavirus spread, according to a Post analysis.
And at a Tyson Foods plant in Iowa, supervisors placed “winner-take-all” bets on how many of their workers would catch the virus, according to a wrongful-death suit.
Yet, chicken remains as popular as ever. A study from TOP, a network of marketing agencies, says fried chicken chains have fared far better than other fast-food outlets during the pandemic. Both demand and price remain high, and restaurants across the country have had to adapt, some by cutting chicken wings from their menus.
One industry official in North Carolina predicted the crunch would get more acute as the weather warms and more Americans begin grilling regularly.
“What we need,” the official told WSOC-TV, “is a four-winged chicken.”
Yeganeh Torbati contributed to this report.