Winging it

In the early 1990s, the Bills weren’t the only Buffalo institution to gainnational notoriety. Until then, Buffalo wings existed only as a regionaldelicacy. Then McDonald’s added Mighty Wings to the menu in 1990, andKFC experimented with wings of their own in 1991, but with only mixed results.It wasn’t until 1994 that chicken wings found a home: Domino’s began anational advertising campaign featuring a flying buffalo to promote adding wings topizza orders. “When Domino’s featured its ad with the flying buffalo, it put the chickenwing in a new stratosphere, and it has never looked back,” says Richard Lobb, spokespersonfor the National Chicken Council in Washington.

Today, many pizzeria owners find that wings are a natural fit on their menus. “Wings,pizza and beer are the perfect combination, really,” says Corey Balzer, owner of AmericanPie Pizza Company (americanpiepizzaco.com), with 12 locations in Central Florida.“It’s easy food to eat at events like a Super Bowl party because it can be picked up andenjoyed by the masses.” The National Chicken Council estimated that more than 1.25billion wings were consumed during Super Bowl weekend in 2010—but that weekendaccounts for less than 10% of the 13 billion chicken wings sold annually.

However, there is a downside to this popularity: The overwhelming demand forchicken wings has caused chicken wing prices to fluctuate more than a roller coasterat Six Flags, and the peak always comes just before the big game. In 2009, Sam Musolino,owner of Sammy’s Pizzeria in Niagara Falls, New York, made headlines acrossthe country for trying to lead a chicken wing boycott. Musolino told local and nationalnews affiliates that the 40-pound box of wings he normally buys for $46 jumps to $85before Super Bowl Sunday. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the averagewholesale price of wings in 2009 was $1.47 per pound, up 38% from 2008 (overthe same period of time, the average price for a boiler chicken went down 2.6%). Thetrend has continued into 2010, with chicken wing prices fluctuating between $1.75 to$1.65 per pound, while boneless chicken breasts have held steady at $1.56 per pound.

Making a Name

The giant winged buffalo provided the first introduction for most of the country tospicy Buffalo wings, but consumers still needed a way to taste them at a local pizzeria.Fittingly, it would be a Buffalo icon that would take the wing national. Joe Todaro Sr.established La Nova Pizzeria (lanova.com) in 1957, well before Buffalo’s Anchor Barfirst began serving Buffalo wings in 1964. La Nova established itself as Buffalo’s mostpopular pizzeria, with recipes passed down through the Todaro family, who addedwings to their menu in the ’70s. Joey Todaro III later latched onto the Buffalo traditionof combining wings and independently owned pizzerias. “We sold the most wings outof every pizzeria in Buffalo, and I came up with the idea in the late ’80s and early ’90sto try and sell chicken wings to other pizzerias throughout the country, never knowingit would be this big,” Todaro recalls. “At the time, the wing was the cheapest part of thebird; now, it’s the most expensive. Who knew what we were creating?”

Traditionally, wings were used tomake chicken stock and little else, but Todarofaced little opposition when it came to changing people’sperception of the wing. “Growing up here in Buffalo, it has always beena popular item, so I had faith in it,” Todaro says. “I didn’t know it was going to be likethis. It has been accepted by pizza operators very kindly; just about every pizzeria haschicken wings now.” Today, La Nova’s wing business brings in $30 million per year inrevenue. Over the last year, Todaro says he has seen an increase in demand for bonelesswings, which are made from the breast and are cheaper, but he believes the bone-inwing has developed a following that simply can’t be replaced by boneless. “We havepushed our boneless well, but people still love their chicken wings, and they are still indemand. It’s unbelievable since the price has risen so high,” Todaro says.

Get Fresh

Mike Pullano, co-owner of Pullano’s Pizza (pullanos.com) in Glendale, Arizona, beganserving wings in 1987 due to the urging of some friends who grew up in Buffalo. Today,wings are a staple on the Pullano’s menu, expanding beyond the traditional spicyflavors to include raspberry chipotle, jerk seasoning and chili limón. However, the traditionalhot flavor remains the top seller. Pullano says his “always fried, never frozenwings” remain a staple on his menu, but he cautions operators looking to add wings totheir menu for the first time. “They’re hard to make a profit on, because the prices havegone up and continue to fluctuate,” he warns.

The question for operators has become, how can I make money on a product with sucha volatile price point? In addition, the market for wings has expanded to include fast-foodoperations and even convenience stores, with 7-Eleven debuting its line of impulse buywings in 2009. With the market seemingly saturated beyond demand, the customerneeds to know that a superior product can be found at your establishment. For Pullano,his ability to serve fresh wings and signature sauces sets him apart. “Everyone has addedwings to the menu, but they aren’t going to be as good if they aren’t fresh,” he explains.

Bundling wings with pizza can also increase sales. La Nova points to its wing combostrategy as a tried-and-true method for moving wings. Offer a large one-topping pizzawith a single order of wings in a combo deal without a coupon. This puts the focus onthe product without sacrificing your ticket average.

Cost Worth the Reward

Though offering wings has its challenges, they continue to be a customer favorite.At American Pie, even on a diverse menu that expands beyond New York-style pizzato include flatbreads, calzones, saladsand pasta, wings generate 10% of menusales, and are the No. 2 appetizer behindgarlic knots (which retail at $2.99, comparedto $7.99 for 10 wings). Despitea high price point, the decision to addwings to the menu was an easy one forBalzer, and he recommends that anyoperators who might be on the fenceembrace wings. “I think it’s the perfectcomplement, because it’s not going totake a lot of room in the inventory, likea dessert might,” says Balzer. “Whenpeople call in orders, it’s an easy upsellto add wings to the order.” There is noneed to transform your kitchen by addingwings, either. American Pie, forexample, features fresh wings that areparbaked beforehand—then the wingsare sauced and passed through the pizzaoven when an order is placed.

Balzer says he has seen a few flavortrends appear over the past few years.The Hot Italian Garlic is the house specialand top seller, but customers demandedan even hotter menu item, so an extra-hotflavor was developed using infamousghost chili, certified by the GuinnessBook of World Records as the world’shottest pepper. “We dilute it down withsome butter and a few other spices, butit’s still like lighting your mouth on fire,”Balzer laughs.

The consumer’s need for heat hasbeen equaled by desire for a healthychicken wing. Balzer notes that in thepast year sales of chicken wings havegone from 70% fried to a 50-50 splitbetween fried and baked. According toAmerican Pie’s nutritional information,baked wings have 150 calories and 12grams of fat less per 10-wing servingthan the fried variety.

Whether they are fried, baked orboneless, consumer demand has madea permanent home for chicken wingson pizzeria menus across the country.The dramatic price shifts are an issue forwhich operators will have to adjust theirbudgets. “The only way they are going tobe able to solve that is to make a chickenwith four wings,” Pullano laughs.

The chicken wing serves many roleson the menu, from tantalizing appetizerto an option for nonpizza eaters. The opportunitywings present for an upsell andin combo packages makes it a viable optionon any menu regardless of price.

Jacob Threadgill is a PMQ intern.