Fried wings made Buffalo, N.Y.'s Anchor Bar famous, but the pizza industry deserves a lot of credit for making fried wings an American favorite. Over the past four decades, the poultry-and-pizza pairing has become a national natural; today, more pizzerias serve them than don't.
The flavorful flappers have become so popular they've spawned wings-centered concepts that are becoming national chains. Not only do they serve wings in a wild and wide variety of flavors, they deliver them to customers' doors.
Are wings restaurants stealing a page from the pizzeria playbook?
Absolutely, said Stan Friedman, executive vice president and partner at Atlanta-based Wing Zone, a 120-unit chain.
"Our founders followed the Domino's model from the beginning," Friedman said. When Wing Zone cofounders Matt Friedman and Adam Scott couldn't find good wings near the University of Florida, they started frying — and later selling — wings out of their fraternity house's kitchen. "In the beginning, they only focused on markets where there were a lot of college students. They perceived their audience to be lazy students who didn't want to go out and get the food themselves."
Their instincts where right, and Wing Zone built its foundation on that demographic. But Friedman said the chain now is finding strong potential in inner-city residential markets, home to ethnic minorities, and in business districts.
"People working on second or third shifts are huge customers for us because they can't get away from work, they have few food options at that hour and even fewer places that deliver," Friedman said. "We've found if you serve food late at night and can bring it to the door, you've got a home run."
Make no mistake, Friedman said, Wing Zone and chains like it aren't solely looking to steal wing sales from pizzerias. He believes the fried wing is now its own restaurant subcategory.
"Many have viewed them as appetizers, but that's changed as this generation becomes more wings-centered," Friedman said. Like many pizzerias, Wing Zone's per-store sales average is above $500,000. "I see it becoming more center of the plate. It's not just party food anymore."
Sales are flying
Wings manufacturers have said for years that business is so good they're struggling to acquire all the birds they need to feed demand. According to National Chicken Council (NCC) estimates, in 2006, 11 billion chicken wings (weighing 2.2 billion pounds) will be marketed by themselves, not as parts of the whole chicken. Of that 11 billion, 7.5 billion (1.5 billion pounds) will be sold through foodservice channels: the remaining 3.5 billion (700 million pounds) will be sold in retail grocery stores.
The vast majority of wings, especially those destined for foodservice, are disjointed and marketed as wing portions. The third joint (the thin end part known as the flapper) is exported to Asian nations and the meatier first portion (the drummette) and second portion (the flat) are consumed domestically.
Dana Lawnzak, brand manager, foodservice, for Frank's RedHot sauce, also said the company's sales are strongest during football season. "The whole fourth quarter (of the year) is big for us, but our biggest spikes are in January, right before the Super Bowl."
Lawnzak added that Frank's is working on specific promotions for pizzerias, given the high sales of wings in that segment. "The two go together so well, so we want to increase our sales in pizza."
The owners of La Nova Pizza also wanted to increase wings sales in the pizza industry when it founded La Nova Wings 12 years ago. Sales of deep-fried wings at what was then its lone Buffalo, N.Y., pizzeria (it now has two) accounted for more than 40 percent of its $5 million in annual sales, and the founder's grandchildren, Joe and Carla Todaro, saw the potential to grow that part of the business.
Sales at La Nova Wings now exceed total sales at La Nova Pizza by a factor of five, and the bulk of those wings are sold to the pizza industry. But unlike the mountains of fried wings sold at its pizzerias, La Nova Wings are pre-seasoned, precooked and developed for baking at pizzerias without fryers.
While baking works for thousands of La Nova Wings customers, Jon Doemel believes baking is faking when it comes to wings.
"Ovens are for pizza. That's always been my philosophy," said Doemel, co-owner of Glass Nickel Pizza in Oshkosh, Wis. With the return of football season, sales of wings at his pizzeria have doubled. "We were going through about seven or eight cases a week (in the summer), but now we're up to 14. We have 15 appetizers on our menu, but wings are the king." Pizza makes up nearly 75 percent of Glass Nickel's food sales.
For years Pizza Hut has sold baked wings at thousands of its stores. But as wings-centered concepts popped up around the country — especially in and around its Dallas headquarters market, where Wingstop was founded 22 years ago — the company saw the need to develop its own fried wings concept. Nearly four years ago, Pizza Hut parent Yum! Brands opened its first WingStreet outlet; this summer it opened its 800th. All units are in the United States, and to strengthen the pizza-and-wing marriage, all are co-branded with Pizza Huts.
"We found the best thing to do was leverage the best of both brands," said Lisken Lawler, WingStreet director of concept development. WingStreet sells traditional, breaded and boneless wings. "We sell a lot of pizza and wings that way, but we also sell a lot of orders that are wings only. Plus, you can get them delivered."
Wing Zone's average check is $14.50, while Wingstop's comes in around $12. Lawler declined to state WingStreet's average.
Dietary concerns aside, Lawler said the growing competition in the wings category proves how much customers want them. Wing Zone's Friedman said much the same, but that his company offers more healthful selections for those skipping that indulgence.
"We call it the 'menu veto,' when 10 guys are at the house watching TV and they want wings, but the wife controls the telephone," he began. "You'd better have something like a grilled breast of chicken over a salad, something she might like, because you don't want to have someone kill an order for 100 wings."
Glass Nickel's Domel used to bundle pizza and wings specials, but wings sales were so strong already, he changed his tack.
"Wings are one of our better sellers, so since people were going to buy them anyway — and we were going to make the money anyway — why discount them?" Doemel said. "I've learned that if you want to do a marketing campaign, push something that's not already moving in your inventory."
In this season of tailgating and football parties, Lawler said WingStreet's fall marketing campaign centers on group orders, and it will make a strong push for its 40-pack.
"We've worked to make sure we have relevant product offerings,
We've found if you serve food late at night and can bring it to the door, you've got a home run.
— Stan Friedman,
Executive Vice President
and the 40-pack is a good one" for football season, she said. Choice, she added, is especially important, and the ads will mention WingStreet's nine unique sauces, including three degrees of heat in its Buffalo sauce.
In addition to Frank's own Buffalo sauce (the Anchor Bar, it should be mentioned, used Frank's in its original sauce), Lawnzak said the company has new chile and lime flavors, as well as an extra hot sauce. Still, despite what some believe is a growing love of super-hot sauces, Frank's own surveys found people prefer a lot of flavor, but not so much fire.
"Household penetration for really hot sauces is actually low," she said. A high rate of immigration combined with the growth of international cuisines in the United States is boosting a desire for vivid flavors, she added. "We do see consumers using hot sauce more than ever over the past two years because they want more flavor. But they don't want to burn their mouths."