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.”

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.”