Friday, February 23, 2018
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Wing nuts: On Super Bowl Sunday, America goes crazy for this part of the chicken

Perhaps it is no accident that former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has been nominated by President Donald Trump for USDA secretary. This is the dawning of the age of the chicken. Poultry rising.

Need proof? Americans' consumption of chicken wings, the unofficial repast of the Super Bowl, is projected to hit 1.33 billion this Sunday, according to a National Chicken Council annual report. That figure is up 2 percent, or 30 million wings, from 2016's report, and up 6.5 percent (80 million wings!) from 2015's report.

Let's visualize for a moment. If 1.33 billion wings were laid end to end, they would stretch from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta almost 80 times. Imagine our planet, then conjure enough wings to circle the globe three times. ("I flew in from the coast, and boy are my arms tired.")

Maybe some of the uptick can be explained by our two competing Super Bowl teams and their regions, both titans when it comes to wing consumption. According to the NPD Group, the northeastern United States — New England Patriots country — eats 12 percent more wings on average than other U.S. regions, while the South — Atlanta Falcons country — eats 13 percent more.

And then there's demographic change. The NPD Group data also reveal that millennials hold the chicken wing consumption crown, with wing eaters age 18 to 24 consuming approximately 61 percent more wings than other age groups.

Winging it

Here's the deal, though. Fifty years ago the chicken wing was the least desirable cut, something relegated to the stockpot or dog bowl. In an oft-cited 1980 New Yorker story, Calvin Trillin dove into how the Buffalo wing changed all that. Specifically, it was Teressa Bellissimo, proprietor of the Anchor Bar, who invented the dish in 1964. Details are disputed.

One story: The bar received an erroneous order of chicken wings instead of necks (which were used in their spaghetti sauce). Bellissimo had to come up with a bar appetizer, pronto, to use the surplus. She cut them into the drumstick and flat, fried them with no breading, doused them in hot sauce and paired them with the celery from the house antipasto. Story No. 2: Bellissimo's son, Dominic, says he was drinking with his boys and asked Mom to rustle up a midnight snack. It was what was on hand, blue cheese, celery and all. So, motherly love.

On the other hand, there's a guy named John Young who says the tradition grew out of the African-American community at his own Wings 'n Things restaurant in Buffalo during the mid-1960s. Buffalo has not sweated the particulars, celebrating Chicken Wing Day every July 29 since 1977.

The wing preparation took flight nationally, but so did the sauce: You'll find Buffalo-inflected pizzas, chips and an array of other snack foods.

The National Chicken Council estimates that of the wings eaten during Super Bowl weekend, 75 percent will come from restaurants or food-service outlets, and 25 percent from grocery stores.

Tom Super, vice president of communications for the council, says that typically prices for chicken wings spike in January, but that "the smart suppliers buy them in advance. The vast majority is purchased frozen."

As with all foodstuffs, he says price is very dependent upon supply and that this is the "Thanksgiving for chicken wings — and we haven't found that four-wing chicken yet."

The big producers (Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim's, Koch Foods, Sanderson Farms) all raise chickens free of cages, but Super says organic or free-range are going to be a little more expensive because there are fewer of them. Because "we are a boneless, skinless breast nation," he says, we export dark meat chicken quarters as well as chicken feet, while we import a small amount of whole chicken from Canada and some wings from Chile.

Super says there is regional difference in wing consumption.

"The South eats the most wings, but not the most Buffalo wings. That's definitely the Northeast. The West eats the least. When Seattle was in the Super Bowl our projections were a little bit lower," Super says, adding that blue cheese is most popular in the Northeast but ranch dressing is more popular everywhere else.

Jessica Simpson once was famously convinced wings were made of buffalo. But we all may suffer under similar illusions: Super explains that boneless chicken wings are not merely deboned wings.

"It's pretty much breast meat."

Feel a little like Simpson?

Fowl play

Here in Florida, preparations are amping up for the game this Sunday.

Although Publix doesn't share sales figures, Brian West in media and community relations says Publix employees are mobilized to prepare for the weekend. He says while existing suppliers are able to meet the production needs of Publix stores, in-store stocks rise. Still, customers may not see a big change.

"I'll give you a couple of examples. Let's think in terms of candy. We know that we sell a lot of candy on Valentine's Day and on Halloween, but you don't necessarily see shelf space change," he said. "And in the summer people are grilling out, so during that time we tend to sell more hamburger patties, but you're not necessarily going to see that shelf space increase. Same thing with chicken wings."

Terry Ryan, CEO of Tampa Bay-based WingHouse, sees Super Bowl Sunday the way most restaurateurs think of Mother's Day, the No. 1 dining-out day. The company rents extra fryers and hot boxes to keep up with demand, and every employee in the company has to be on hand.

"We had two tickets to the Super Bowl and we gave them away," he said, "because every operator has to work."

He says the company sells between 35 and 50 cases of wings, which represents 225,000 wings sold just that day, 60 to 75 percent of which is carryout.

Here's the rub. According to the USDA, the wholesale price of wings in December 2006 was 99 cents per pound. In December 2016, that number was $1.87.

"Just in the past year our cost is up about 3 percent, and 2 percent the year before that," Ryan says. "Fifty years ago wings were a by-product and now it's a staple on every sports bar menu."

Demand has risen precisely as another change has occurred: Chickens have gotten bigger. Bigger chickens mean bigger wings. That's a boon to consumers, but with so much competition in the wing space, it's hard to pass additional cost on to customers.

Bill Moore, vice president of operations for Hooters, says that 30 years ago when they started, 10 wings equaled a pound. Now 10 wings is 22 to 24 ounces.

"We buy by the pound and we charge by the piece. We don't drive the market, we have to react to it," he says. "You can't just raise the price. And our customers want their 10 wings. So we're constantly trying to navigate the producer side."

In an average week, one of the 12 Tampa Bay Hooters locations will go through 100 cases of wings. (With about 280 per case, that means 28,000 wings.) On Super Bowl Sunday that same store will do 60 to 80 cases in a single day.

Moore says it's all hands on deck (although one general manager was allowed to go to Super Bowl XLI because he was a huge Bears fan) and that they try to meter or regulate the flow of to-go orders so the fryers and staff work steadily.

So for Hooters, is it the Thanksgiving or the Mother's Day of wing days?

"Well," says Moore, "it's the Super Bowl of wing days."

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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