March Madness has again gripped the nation, along with madness for chicken wings, as sports bars and sports-themed restaurants serve platefuls of poultry to hungry customers who gather to watch the basketball games on TV.

But restaurant operators are paying higher prices this year for bone-in wings, 63 percent more than in 2014, to keep the fans satisfied, says DeWayne Dove, vice president of risk management for SpenDifference, a rapidly growing restaurant supply chain co-op. 

In a year-over-year comparison, the cost of bone-in chicken wings is $1.91 a pound this year, compared with $1.17 in 2014. The lower cost last year was due in part to an increase in supply that held down the price, Dove says.

Although other meat commodity purchases rise slightly this time of year, restaurants that cater to the NCAA tournament crowd buy far more bone-in chicken wings than ground beef, he says. 

Even with the higher prices for wings, restaurants have options to increase their profit margins:

  • Expand the menu with lower-cost boneless wings, which are made from chicken breasts. The current wholesale price of chicken breasts is $1.63 a pound, a substantial savings over the bone-in product. “Operators who buy more boneless products and less bone-in wings can grow the category and increase their margins,” Dove says.
  • Plan ahead and buy frozen wings to lock in prices. Frozen wings can be stored far longer than the fresh product, and operators who buy fresh wings “are at the mercy of the market,” he says.
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