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With prices rising, cheap chicken wings may be a thing of the past

Wings at the BonChon Chicken location in Arlington. (Photo by Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
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As chef and co-owner of All Set, a seafood restaurant and bar in Silver Spring, Md., Edward Reavis knew he would take a bath on his lobster roll and crab cake given the crushing wholesales prices of lobster and blue crabs these days. But, at the same time, he knew he could always rely on his Old Bay chicken wings to help even out his food costs.

Not anymore.

That bottom-line protection abruptly flew the coop this month when the chef noticed he was paying about $2.90 a pound for wings. Just late last year, Reavis recalls shelling out as little as $1.80 per pound for the same wingettes and drumettes. In a matter of months, his wholesale wing costs had jumped more than 60 percent.

[In demand and pricier than ever, lobster rolls have become the cupcakes of the sea]

“Are you trying to get me on the wings, and I just don’t know it?” Reavis remembers asking his supplier.

Jamie Johnson, the local sales rep for Fells Point Wholesale Meats in Baltimore, then told Reavis the bad news: Chicken wings prices were out of control — and not just for chefs and restaurants in the D.C. region. Wholesale wing prices have been rising for months. It’s so bad that Buffalo Wild Wings, the publicly traded chain that specializes in the bar snack, saw its profits drop nearly 63 percent in the second quarter of this year.

Sally Smith, president and chief executive of Buffalo Wild Wings, blamed the decline, in part, on “historically high wing costs.”

In an earnings call last week, Alexander H. Ware, chief financial officer for Buffalo Wild Wings, told conference call participants that “traditional wings were $2.05 per pound in the second quarter, or 6 percent higher than last year. This is a historic high for wings at this time of year.”

Rather than scrap its popular half-price wing promotion on Tuesdays, which drives traffic, the chain has decided to shift to “boneless chicken wings.” Last year, boneless wings actually outsold traditional wings at the chain’s more than 1,200 locations. Which sort of makes sense given that boneless wings are cheaper. They’re also not chicken wings, but rather slices of breast meat deep-fried to resemble their bony cousins.

[The $20 Diner: The zen of BonChon Chicken]

The reason behind the skyrocketing wing prices is simple, says Erik Oosterwijk, president and founder of Fells Point Wholesale Meats. The demand has increased. Just think about all the chains that, more or less, specialize in wings: not just Buffalo Wild Wings, but BonChon, Wingstop, Wing Zone and Hooters, among others. Then there are the pizza chains, such as Domino’s and Papa John’s, that have adopted wings, as well as sports bars, dive bars and BonChon imitators where the snack is a staple.

The increased demand is sweet revenge for the humble wing, an unwanted poultry byproduct back in the 1980s, when the American dining public was certain that animal fats would kill them and demanded only boneless, skinless chicken breasts. But starting around 2009, wing prices started to eclipse those for breasts, hinting that demand for wingettes and drumettes was on the rise.

[Here come the BonChon imitators]

These days, Oosterwijk says, “wings are the most expensive part of the chicken.”

Oosterwijk fired up his computers to provide a historical review of the rising costs of wings. Back in October 2006, he says, Fells Point sold party wings (the whole wing, save for the tip) for $1.47 per pound wholesale. In February 2011, the company sold them for $1.37 per pound. In January 2015, the wholesale price was $2.42 per pound, and this past January, the price jumped to $2.68 per pound.

The price dipped to about $2.52 in March, but spiked again this month. Right now, Fells Point sells party wings for about $2.85 per pound.

“The highest they’ve ever been,” he says.

The Fells Point founder has a theory as to why people are gobbling up so many wings.

“People get tired of eating boring chicken breast,” Oosterwijk says. “Fat is back, and more people are starting to realize that.”

As for Reavis at All Set, the chef has pulled the wings off the happy-hour menu, where he was offering seven for $8. He just can’t justify the high food costs. But he has kept them on the appetizer menu, where the price is holding steady at $12 for seven wings.

Fells Point has told Reavis that it can give him a better deal on wingettes, the less-meaty section, also known as the flat.

“I have no clue what the quality of those wingettes are,” Reavis says. But he knows this: His customers “always request the flats,” which is a good thing, because it looks as if they’re about to get more of them.

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