Andy Dell knows chicken wings.
Dell, the owner of Rino D's Pizza & Wings in Gilbert, Ariz., sells nearly 800 pounds of chicken wings each week. Wings make up about 35 percent of his weekly sales, he said.
"Our all-time record is 406 pounds in a day, a couple of years ago when New Years Eve was on a Wednesday," Dell said. "We were only open from 4 p.m.-10 p.m. It was absolutely nuts."
On a busy Friday night, Rino D's might deliver 15 to 20 orders that are just wing orders. The restaurant also serves a variety of pizza-and-wing combos.
The chicken wings Rino D's serves are delivered fresh to the store each week and deep-fried to order. Sauces, which include mild, hot, suicide, honey BBQ and honey BBQ hot, are made in the store.
The restaurant also sells wings by the pound rather than by the piece.
"Wings have become so popular that the sizes are very inconsistent, and when you are selling 600-800 pounds a week it can run havoc on your food cost," Dell said. "A dozen wings in one order might be a pound and a half, while in another order it is three-quarters of a pound."
Wings are getting bigger
Chicken wings are now the No. 1 most-menued appetizer, having overtaken nachos in the past several years, according to Nancy Kruse, president of Atlanta-based The Kruse Co., which assesses trends and directions in food, menu and restaurant concepts.
"What seems to be aiding the popularity of wings is their ability to take a creative role in all kinds of ethnic appetizers," Kruse said. "They are compatible with all kinds of flavor treatments, so that makes them hugely attractive from the operator point of view."
In recent years, pizzeria operators have recognized the advantages of branching out beyond pizza. Chicken wings were a way to capture customers who might not always have a taste for pizza.
"If all you have on your menu is pizza, pasta and Italian sandwiches, you may turn someone off," said Eric Lippmann, owner of EJ's Neighborhood Pizzeria and Italian Eatery in Houston. "With chicken wings, you can open up another avenue for someone else to come in with their family."
Often, customers make a meal out of a salad and an order of wings, he said.
"It's the perfect match," said Scott Anthony, owner of a Fox's Pizza Den in Punxsutawney, Pa. "It is a convenient food that can be transported easily; it's a finger food like pizza and it's a popular item whether it is for snacking or for a meal."
Nearly every operator is getting into the act. Everett, Wash.-based Garlic Jim's Famous Gourmet Pizza added a line of chicken wings at all of the company's 40 locations in July. And Yum Brands Inc., parent company of Pizza Hut, introduced its WingStreet concept in 2003, which recently passed the 1,000-unit mark. Nearly all of the WingStreet locations in the United States, Australia and Canada are co-branded with Pizza Hut locations.
No new equipment required
Although Rino D's deep-fries their chicken wings, operators can get into the wing game with a minimum of investment.
Companies such as Buffalo, N.Y.-based La Nova and Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods offer precooked chicken wings that can be heated in the pizza oven, eliminating the need to buy additional equipment.
"Newer operations don't have the money to invest in fryers and hood and vents and fire-suppression systems," Anthony said. "The product is there and is a lot more consistent than having your 17-year-old employee frying wings and expecting him to do that properly."
Also, the danger of cross contamination is minimized with a precooked product, said John Zip, national sales manager for La Nova.
"It makes it a little easier for cooks to handle our product and have it come out right every time," Zip said.
Boneless wings are growing in popularity, too, operators said. Madison Heights, Mich.-based Hungry Howie's Pizza plans to introduce boneless wings at its nearly 600 locations around the country.
"Boneless wings are perceived as a better value because they are all meat, said Jeff Rinke, vice president of marketing and product development for Hungry Howie's. "Ultimately, they appeal to women and children because they are easier and neater to eat."
Unfortunately, as the popularity of chicken wings has increased, so has the price operators must pay for the product. The cost of chicken wings has doubled in recent years as poultry producers face higher feed costs, in part due to the increasing demand for ethanol.
"It all boils down to corn," Zip said. "When the cost of feed goes up, the cost of the product is going to go up as well."