“Our first push is to say there are already some other options out there,” Jenkins says. “There’s not a lot of wing places like us that have a hand-pattied ground chuck and brisket blended burger.”
Buffalo Wings & Rings is even testing with other parts of the bird to see if there’s a product made of thighs or legs that might appeal to customers.
“It’s not something we’re super serious about at this point,” he says. “But if we get something in our test kitchen we like and we think our guests will like it, we’re certainly not going to shy away from it.”
He thinks a core group of customers will continue purchasing wings at the brand’s 70-plus stores no matter how high prices climb. But: “If we get to a place where we charge the same for 10 chicken wings as somebody else charges for filet mignon, it’s probably going to be a rare occurrence.”
Wade Winters, vice president of supply chain at purchasing partner Consolidated Concepts, says many restaurant brands are working to deemphasize traditional chicken wings in favor of other products like boneless wings. But that’s a difficult pivot for wing-centric concepts like Buffalo Wild Wings.
He, too, believes some die-hard fans of bone-in wings probably won’t make the leap to boneless, no matter how high prices stretch. But they’ll probably sacrifice in other ways: by accepting smaller servings of wings or shopping around for the best prices.
“The true wing lover is never going to want to switch,” Winters says. “They’ll probably agree to pay more.”
That demand now outstrips supply for chicken wings in the U.S. represents an ironic role reversal for the once-lowly wing: Previously considered a subpar cut of bird, wings were often shipped overseas or relegated to the world of stocks and soups. But not anymore.
“It’s kind of a byproduct,” Winters says. “Chicken manufacturers now say a perfect chicken would have eight wings on it. You know, I wouldn’t put it past them to make it happen.”
With public pressure to raise chickens humanely, Winters doesn’t expect chicken farmers to make big gains in supply any time soon. At the same time, the demand for wings is cemented into American culture.
“There will always, always, always be demand for wings and bacon,” Winters says. “It will fluctuate. It will go up and down, but those are two ingredients in my mind that will always be popular.”