In Buffalo, N.Y., owners of the Anchor Bar claim they were the first to take lowly chicken wings -- parts otherwise used for soup meat or thrown away -- deep fry, serve and sell them as an appetizer more than 40 years ago.
But while the Anchor Bar remains about the same size today as back then, chicken wing appetizer sales have multiplied beyond all expectation. Whole chains, such as Minneapolis-based bW3, are built around the tender appendages, and one wings manufacturer estimates the total business to be worth $700 million.
"The sale of wings caught on like gangbusters nearly 10 years ago and it's been on fire ever since," said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Chicken Council (NCC). The group represents 90 percent of the nation's integrated chicken producers and processors. "In the early '90s, chicken wings sold at a faster clip than boneless breasts."
Richard Harper, assistant production manager for Tyson Foods, said the sale of wings continues strong, adding they have become possibly the most popular item off the bird.
"It's an awesome appetizer and a terrific finger food," said Harper, who oversees the wings and pizza segment at Tyson, headquartered in Springdale, Ark. "People eat pizza and wings for the same reasons: fun and flavor. Whether it's a chain or an independent, wings represent a key item for pizza parlors."
Joe Gilmore, vice president of foodservice management for the Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue Farms, points to the ease of preparation of wings as one reason for their appeal.
"It's a great value item and helps bridge the gap to the non-pizza eating world and to customers looking for something different," said Gilmore. "Offering wings in a pizza operation is a very smart thing to do."
Interestingly, Gilmore says the on-going recession has "really kicked demand into high gear." Though seeking less-expensive foods, consumers still want meaty and flavorful options. Seeing the economy begin to slow last January, Gilmore said, a number of quick-thinking fast-food operators began offering wings in the $3.99 to $4.99 price range. "That helped prop up some lagging sales and was the start of a new demand cycle."
Their Beaks are Sealed
Most wings suppliers and manufacturers won't share sales figures or quote the value of the total industry. Spokesmen at Tyson and Perdue said that information was proprietary, and Harper volunteered only that, "It's quite a bit."
Joey Todaro, president and co-founder of La Nova Wings in Buffalo, however, believes the industry is a $700-million-a-year mammoth that sells a "good chunk" of its product to pizza outlets. Other significant markets include hotels, amusement parks, bowling alleys and restaurants.
Nine-year-old La Nova sells $30 million in wings each year through about 500 distributors.
"U.S. companies produce more than 8.3 billion pounds of chicken a year. So there are plenty of wings.""
"We helped make them popular," said Todaro, who also helps oversee the family business, La Nova Pizzeria, a two-store pizza company with sales last year of about $8 million. "We became famous for our pizza, and now we've become famous for our wings."
Wings and pizza also got a strong nationwide boost in 1994, when Domino's Pizza began chain-wide sales supported by a national mass medial campaign. Company spokesperson, Holly Ryan, wouldn't state sales figures, but she noted that numbers have "gone up every year. We estimate 12 percent of every order that goes out the door includes wings, versus the 19 percent than include bread sticks."
Richard Senerchia, whose company, Athens Pizza, owns outlets in Keene and Leominster, N.H., as well as Bellows Falls, Vt., sells about 85 pounds of wings each week.
"Wings are an excellent item. They're a quick and easy grab that a lot of people buy as appetizers," said Senerchia. "While most customers don't see wings as a stand-alone meal, they could be, because they're very meaty."
Casey Exley, general manager of a Peter Piper Pizza outlet in Las Vegas, estimated the sale of his only flavor, "hot and spicy," accounts for 15 percent of his total store sales. Exley offers a special featuring two pizzas and an order of 20 wings, for $23.
"It does pretty well for us," Exley said. "Most of the wings we sell are sold with pizzas. Those sold alone account for less than 1 percent of sales."
Domino's Ryan echoed Exley's remarks, saying that, like pizza, wings are a social food, which adds to their popularity when sold with pizza.
While flavors vary from region to region, several are consistently popular, including hot and spicy options and BBQ, according to Perdue's Gilmore.
"BBQ, hot sauce and plain wings do well for us," said Domino's Ryan.
While Tyson markets "numerous varieties," Harper said the best seller remains "Wings of Fire," adding, "It's the grandfather and champion. If you like spicy, you'll love it."
Harper noted Tyson is enjoying new success with the introduction six months ago of a boneless wing. "It's popular for the same reasons the others are. They taste good and they're fun to eat."
In addition to selling flavored wings, La Nova now markets seven sauces customers can use to flavor its par-cooked, oven-heated wings: Hot, BBQ, Honey Mustard, Hot BBQ, Raspberry, Roasted Garlic BBQ and Teriyaki.
"It gives the customers want they want, more alternatives," said Todaro.
Despite the continued popularity of wings, providers currently have no difficulty supplying the market.
"U.S. companies produce more than 8.3 billion pounds of chicken a year," said the NCC's Lobb. "So there are plenty of wings."
"Demand has definitely risen, but we have no problem getting supplies," said La Nova's Todaro. "With the big chains jumping in, prices have been driven up by as much as 40 percent in the last year. Still, the supply is there."
Worth the Weight
It's no mystery that chicken wings won't ever land on a Weight Watchers top 10 list. In fact, on average, and depending on the sauce applied, most wings boast about 150 calories and 12 grams of fat each -- enough to make Richard Simmons faint.
But it appears customers who flock to eat them either aren't concerned about the calories, or simply or indulge in them infrequently. Either way, said Tyson's Harper, demand is growing.
"Sales are not related or influenced by health concerns," said Harper. "People keep eating them because they're fun to eat and they taste good."