Ascent of the chicken wing

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Chicken Wings Thanksgiving has turkey, Christmas has ham (or perhaps turkey), but for America’s biggest unofficial holiday – Super Bowl Sunday – the food of choice is the chicken wing. According to the National Chicken Council (NCC), Americans will consume more than 1.2 billion wings over Super Bowl weekend. Yes, that’s billion, with a “b.”

And the Super Bowl isn’t the only time Americans devour piles of wings. During 2013 the NCC estimates more than 13.2 billion chicken wings, about three billion pounds, will be marketed as wings, excluding those sold attached to the rest of the chicken.

For Super Bowl XLVII, football fans will pay the highest price ever for their hot wings. With the retail price averaging upwards of $2.50 per pound, wings are the most expensive part of the chicken.

Beef really needs a chicken-wing equivalent.

So how did an item consisting of mostly bone and skin, formerly viewed essentially as a byproduct of the rest of the chicken, become such a hit?

Thinking back to my youth, chicken was available in two forms at grocery stores – whole or cut up. The cut-up package contained all the parts, typically with the wings still attached to the breast sections. Most home cooks weren’t really sure what to do with them. Somewhere around the late 1970s, processors began packaging individual cuts of the chicken, largely because of the growing popularity of chicken breasts as consumers perceived the dry, flavorless white meat as more healthy.

For a time, that trend left wings without a home, but fortuitously for chicken producers and processors, the wing craze was just getting started.

According to chicken-wing lore, the Buffalo Wing was conceived at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York in 1964. After closing one night, the bar’s co-owner fried up some left-over wings, dunked them in hot sauce and served them to her son and his friends for a late-night snack. They liked the wings so much the Anchor added them to the menu and the concept spread from there. By the early 1990s, major chains such as McDonald’s, KFC and Domino’s Pizza began serving wings, adding to their national popularity. Today, national chains such as Buffalo Wild Wings and Wing Stop have built their entire business around the lowly chicken wing.

The chicken-wing story provides lessons in consumer behavior that could be valuable in marketing future beef products.

  • Consumers are willing to pay more for an item they like, even if its attributes would logically indicate a lower value. Case in point: Chicken drumsticks taste virtually the same as wings and have a greater meat-to-bone ratio, and yet they sell for less than half the price of wings at retail.
  • If consumers like a food item, they’ll gladly throw all their supposed concerns over healthy eating out the window. Traditional Buffalo Wings are deep fried, then soaked in a one-to-one mix of melted margarine and hot sauce, but Americans will eat three billion pounds of them this year.

Beef really needs a chicken-wing equivalent.

The NCBA, Cattlemen’s Beef Board and industry partners have tried over the years to develop beef snack items that could fill the same niche as wings and add value to lower-priced cuts, but have not yet found the winning formula.

I don’t know what the answer will be, but I hope they keep trying. Perhaps something using meat from the short ribs – lower-value cuts that are mostly exported but feature good beef flavor and marbling. Hmm. Thinly sliced short-rib meat, well seasoned and grilled on a small kabob. I’m getting hungry.

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Wyo  |  January, 25, 2013 at 08:00 AM

Great article and comments.......Thanks John.

San Antonio  |  January, 25, 2013 at 10:04 AM

Texas is traditionally the place where less than superior cuts of beef are transformed into huge crowd-pleasers -- chicken fried steak, fajitas, burritos, chili con carne (invented in San Antonio - not Mexico!) Travel anywhere in the third world and you'll see they already know what can be done with bits and pieces of meat - tasty kebobs, delicious meat empanadas, marinated/grilled beef medallions - on and on. Now some enterprising businessperson needs to figure out (a la SUBWAY) how to package and franchise all this into a healthy, appetizing lunch and dinner alternatives. It can be done! (And why Sonic took away my beloved Frito Pie I'll never know.)

January, 25, 2013 at 10:07 AM

Along that same line, Years ago when I worked my way through college I paid 10 cents/lb for chicken parts, wings, backs, gizzards etc and practically lived on them for two-three years. Today we pay $6/lb for hide chips as dog treats for our family dog. Go figure.

Middle of beef country  |  January, 25, 2013 at 10:11 AM

In my teen years our favorite Root Beer drive-in at the corner of 14th and Buckeye served "steak strips" breaded and deep fried with packets of hot sauce, catsup or your favorite dressing to drizzle over the strips and fries in a basket. They were to die-for and our cowgirl friends loved them also. Later in life near the Deere Capital a favorite the lunch meal was Steak Strip Spinach Salad. Niether are to be found now. Steak strips beat chicken strips any day. Steak Strip Spinach Salad with V&O dressing is as healthy as it gets, eh?? Ron

Ohio  |  January, 25, 2013 at 10:44 AM

How about individual ribs ? Jummmm ! Mc Donals new steak and egg in a muffin for breakfast is good.

Mn  |  January, 25, 2013 at 12:13 PM

In our family we serve both hot wings and small home made b-b-q meatballs as finger food for Super Bowl parties. We use toothpicks for ease of serving the meatballs and pound for pound both are equally popular.

John McGrew    
ID  |  January, 25, 2013 at 04:57 PM

The beef alternative to wings is called the hamburger. We got there first, but it is now taken for granted.

Jim Sturrock    
NE Colo  |  January, 25, 2013 at 05:52 PM

Right on John

John Maday    
Colorado  |  January, 27, 2013 at 10:53 AM

Hamburgers obviously are very popular and a huge boon to the beef industry. In my opinion though, they are in a different “niche” from the chicken wing. A hamburger is a meal, while wings are a snack. People will serve and eat wings from pre-game through the final buzzer during the Super Bowl or other games, while they might eat one burger as the main course. “Sliders” come close to competing with wings, but they tend to be more bread than beef. And Americans will not consume anywhere near 13 billion sliders this year.

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