Menu Innovations | October 2012 | By Denene Brox

Winging It

Chicken wings are showing up on more quick-serve menus, and not just during football season.

Chicken wings are popping up on several fast food restaurant menus.
Technomic reports that 36 percent of the top 500 restaurant chains now offer wings. ©istockphoto.com / Michael Phillips
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It would seem strange these days to attend a Super Bowl party that didn’t have chicken wings available on the snack line. Wings are America’s “party food,” showing up at all manner of celebrations, from tailgating to graduation parties.

But now that party is extending to the quick-serve industry, with wings showing up on menus at concepts one might otherwise not expect to carry them. For example, Veggie Grill, a sandwich and burger concept, added wings in the spring of 2011. Taco John’s, a Mexican concept, did so in the fall of 2011.

According to foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic’s “2012 Category Close-Up: Wings” report, 36 percent of the top 500 restaurant chains now offer wings, a number that continues to grow each year.

“People are very passionate about their wings, about how they’re cooked, and what flavors they are,” says Matt Friedman, cofounder and CEO of Atlanta-based Wing Zone. “Wings are a very social product that are accepted more and more.”

Buffalo wings, which originated in Buffalo, New York, made their nationwide debut on the “Today” show in the 1980s. Buffalo Wings & Rings was founded around that time in Cincinnati, and in the early 1990s, when the Buffalo Bills played in four consecutive Super Bowls, significant media attention gave wings more nationwide exposure. Richardson, Texas–based Wingstop debuted in 1994 and now has more than 500 locations. Wing Zone, meanwhile, launched in 1993 and is now growing by 10–15 new stores a year, a testament to wings’ continued popularity and demand.

Wings became a staple at parties ranging from birthdays to Super Bowl get-togethers, and are a big seller for many restaurants throughout the entire fall and winter football seasons.

“During football season, sales go up about 50 percent, and on Super Bowl weekend, they more than double,” says Terri Snyder, CMO for Checkers/Rally’s.

But wings are now becoming more popular outside of football season. Between the second half of 2009 and the second half of 2011, there was a 5.5 percent increase in the number of chains offering wings, according to Technomic’s wings report. And analysis from the IFA/BoeFly Franchise Lending Index shows that wings concepts’ unit growth is healthy. Between May 2011 and May 2012, within the restaurant sector—which showed no growth in new-unit loan volume during that period—the sub-sector of chicken/wing concepts rose from 45 percent to 55 percent in new-unit lending.

As wings concepts continue to grow, non-wings concepts want their slice of the pie, too. Checkers/Rally’s, a burger chain, introduced wings to its menu in 2009, which Snyder says was a smart way to deliver what customers want.

“What I was seeing is that one of the ways fast food is growing its business is by taking menu items that people love and making them convenient,” Snyder says. “You saw it with McDonald’s; they did an awesome job with frappuccinos and cappuccinos and now even smoothies.

“What I saw was that the Checkers and Rally’s consumer and the heavy fast-food users love wings. They love to have them for a special lunch; they love to have them as dinner and for football occasions, but wings aren’t very convenient,” she says. “You can’t drive through very many places and get wings. You have to park the car, go in, and wait for them. Our strategy is making products people love more convenient.”

Snyder says she wanted to ensure that the Checkers/Rally’s wings could rival any wing-house wing in terms of quality, and the company ran focus groups to find out what customers were looking for.

“Our wings are jumbo wings; they had to be crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, and we actually have sauces that would hold up to any wing house–quality sauce,” she says. “We created several sauces. We use Frank’s RedHot Buffalo as our main buffalo sauce, and it’s worked out really well. We wanted quality wings and we weren’t going to settle for anything less. We worked on it until we got the right quality and the right product.”

Greenwich, Connecticut–based Burgers, Shakes & Fries is another burger concept that added wings, which debuted last fall. Owner Kory Wollins says the concept wanted “a complementary item to add to a fairly basic menu that people would perceive as a value-added item to our concept.” He adds that the company hoped wings could be an add-on to an order instead of a substitute, which would increase check averages.

So far, the strategy has paid off. Wollins says he’s been able to add wings to 50–60 percent of tables. “Average beer consumption is also increasing at the tables that order the wings,” he says. “As people seem to feel the two items go hand in hand, a table with wings and beers increases the check average $4–$7 per person per table.”

Snyder also says that wings have made a big impact on her concept’s bottom line. An average ticket without wings is $6–$7, she says, but an average ticket with wings is around $18.

“With us you can buy wings in quantities of five, 10, 20, or 40 wings,” Snyder says. “We sell a lot of 20 and 40 wings on weekends, during football season, and during Super Bowl Sunday. It really has a significant impact on your average check and your sales.”

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