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September 14, 2017

As the U.S. faces a mass chicken wing shortage, what’s the future hold for Wing Bowl and pub deals?

The U.S. is in danger of running out of chicken wings.

As bone-chilling as this sounds, particularly at the start of football season, the shortage is likely to manifest in one of three ways: higher menu prices, nixing discounts (are wings even good if they’re not 25 cents?) or cutting portion sizes.

By now you’re probably misty-eyed and dreaming of Moriarty’s, wondering, “How did we get here, to the great American chicken wing shortage of 2017?” Well, a lot of factors contributed to the shift in supply and pricing for the food most synonymous with the Super Bowl and March Madness.

According to The Wall Street Journal, "months of red-hot demand and aggressive restaurant promotions have squeezed supplies," and late August saw the highest-ever wholesale prices on wings for bars and restaurants.

“It’s all over,” one restaurant analyst told the Journal. “It’s a very big deal for everyone that has wings on their menu.”

The pricing spike has been building over the last few years. The recent spike may be in part due to end-of-summer barbecues, which Bon Appétit says is one of the three most crucial times of the year for wing demand, but mere seasonality doesn’t tell the full story.

Chicken wings were not widely sold at pubs as a popular menu item until well into the 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, the most coveted piece of chicken was the breast.

“In the last 25 years, the market has completely reversed itself,” said Chris Mullins Jr., owner of McGillin’s (home of the 35-cent wing in Philly).

“When I had my first place in Norristown in 1993, wings were going for 35 cents a pound and boneless chicken breasts for $2 a pound. Right now I could buy boneless skinless chicken breasts for $1.65 a pound, and wings go from $2.50 to $3 a pound,” Mullins said.

“They’re now raising chickens for wings instead of breasts,” Mullins said. “Historically, that has never been the case.”

Since the dawn of the chicken wing as a prized pub commodity, wings have, for the most part, been sold by wing count. In recent years as poultry breeders tried to raise supersized chickens, however, the selling wasn’t quite so simple anymore, and in 2014, suppliers began to sell by weight.

As more factory farms started to put out these gigantic chickens, however, moral and health questions regarding their breeding arose among consumers. The backlash was significant enough for breeders to cut back on overgrowing their chickens, but so far, the economic side of the wing trade has not taken note. Today, wings are still sold by weight, not count, so now more wings are needed to fill a purchaser’s pound quota.

So, what does this mean for your future wing eating experiences? Should we say goodbye to 35-cent wings at McGillin’s? Is this the actual end of Wing Bowl?

Mullins said that McGillin’s never changes prices based on short-term pricing spikes, not even in January when sellers up their prices in prep for the Super Bowl or when the bar easily sells 1,000 pounds of wings during football season.

“We have no intention of doing anything other than our normal increases in prices as necessary,” Mullins said. 

“We’re not like a gas station that changes prices three times a day,” he said.

Dan Bethard, assistant culinary director of local brewery chain Iron Hill, also has an optimistic outlook despite market inflation.

"The entire chicken market has been an ongoing challenge in 2017. Prices have been fairly volatile, especially on wings. We've seen a 28 percent price increase, year over year, on wings," Bethard said.

“We have not been shorted wings and don’t expect to be. We have been in contact with our supplier, and the forecast for us is positive, based on our volume. We will ride the pricing storm and hope the market corrects itself in the coming months. I’m a little skeptical with all the hype about this 'shortage' affecting the Super Bowl, but it is a concern.”

As for Wing Bowl?

“The rising price of wings is concerning and something we are watching,” said Jim Fris, COO at PJW Restaurant Group, which owns the P.J. Whelihan’s chain and also supplies wings for Wing Bowl.

“[Our customers] depend on us for the best in quality and taste, and we won’t jeopardize that,” Fris said.

“Nor is the future of Wing Bowl in jeopardy. We’re signed on for 2018 and as long as Angelo keeps going, we’ll keep bringing the wings.”