Menu Innovations | October 2012 | By Denene Brox

Winging It

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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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Since wings are quickly becoming a staple item on such a wide variety of menus, the experts say operators must be savvy in the way they develop and market their wings. Customers are looking for wings in not only classic flavors like buffalo and honey barbecue, they say, but also in more eclectic and customized flavors.

“Since there is more and more competition, it really does force you to be great at what you do; overall that’s a good thing,” Friedman says. “The most unique thing that we do is what we call ‘flavor fusing.’ Any one of our items on our menu—it could be a salad, it could be a burger, it could be chicken tenders, it could be wings—can be fused with any one of our 17 flavors. Although we only have one burger on our menu, we actually have 17 different burgers. We’ve pushed hard on making our wings about flavor, and not necessarily just about wings.”

Roger David, CEO of Buffalo Wings & Rings, says there is room in the market for a variety of concepts to offer wings. “As a wing concept, it doesn’t impact me very much. There’s going to be that consumer out there that’s looking for convenience, and the [quick-service] category is great at providing that convenience,” David says.

Andy Howard, CMO of Wingstop, says wings’ prevalence on other concepts’ menus is actually a good thing for his brand.

“We see spikes in our business when [other brands] advertise wings to alert the media,” Howard says. “[At] first we were a little bit concerned that they may take some share from us, but frankly, we actually see our business increasing. So it really hasn’t hurt us when other competitors put wings on the menu.”

Friedman confirms that more concepts offering wings is a positive because it increases overall exposure of the product. “I think if you want the best, you’ll search out the best,” Friedman says. “Honestly, the biggest challenge with [more concepts offering wings] is it’s creating more demand on product supply. When more restaurants add it on, there becomes less supply, and it ultimately drives the price up.”

Friedman says original wings, or Buffalo wings, are going to continue to increase in price on menus across the U.S. due to the increased demand. “If customers want the original, they’re going to pay a small up-charge for that,” Friedman says. “To maintain profitability and combat the increased supply costs, the price increases.”

To help alleviate the supply challenges, some operators are promoting boneless wings more heavily, even though boneless wings aren’t wings at all. Boneless wings are dressed in sauce like a traditional wing, but are chicken breast chunks that are battered and fried.

“It’s pretty well known that the price of wings is at an all-time high right now,” Howard says. “We have two types of boneless wings: One is from the pressed meat and one is a boneless strip, which is from the chicken tenders. Those are about 25 percent of our sales. Those are at a more stable purchasing point than the regular bone-in wing. Today our advertising is geared to push the boneless wings.”

In addition to supply savings, promoting boneless wings has another advantage: they appeal to a whole new customer base, notes Mary Chapman, director of product innovation for Technomic Inc.

“We asked whether people have a strong preference for bone-in or boneless wings, and 28 percent said they prefer bone-in and 39 percent said they prefer boneless, and the rest don’t have a preference,” Chapman says. “We also found that when chains offer boneless wings, it doesn’t take away from their traditional bone-in wing business. It’s almost like it’s appealing to a different audience.”

David believes wings will continue to be a consumer favorite in the coming years, giving operators an opportunity to continue to innovate. “In the future, you’ll see different varieties of sauces. As the American palate continues to evolve, you’ll start to see new sauces constantly coming out; sauces will become a hero in the future,” David says.

The Technomic wings report found that adding a limited-time wing offer to test out sales and sauce flavors is a common practice. A full 28 percent of wing-focused limited-time offers promote new wing flavors, offering operators a compelling method to drive sales while testing new wing varieties, the report says.

“The world today is much more open to bold, distinct flavors,” Howard says. “With the food channels, celebrity chefs, and all the great sauces and flavors that are out there today, consumers are much more aware of good flavors and will try things, where in years past they hadn’t. With a wing, the basic wing, it’s a commodity product, so it’s really about the flavors and what we do to the wing that makes it special and distinct.”

To drive innovation beyond sauce flavors, Friedman says, Wing Zone is working on developing wings in different formats.

“We’re working on developing grilled wings, smoked wings, and baked wings,” he says. “I think you’re going to find that there are different ways of preparing them, and some potentially healthier options, as well. I believe that’s a trend you’ll see in the next five years, and we’re kind of hurrying to work on a lot of those things. We’re excited about it.”