Wing It On! calls itself the wing joint for wing fanatics, but a better description might be the chicken joint for chicken fanatics. Tenders have been on the menu since day one.
“I always saw them as table stakes for getting into the chicken game,” says founder and president Matt Ensero. “There’s a certain percentage of consumers out there who just do not eat bone-in chicken products like wings, so tenders are the perfect magnet to avoid that menu veto.”
Originally, the product was listed on the menu as boneless wings. They’re still covered in the brand’s award-winning sauce, but today, they’re simply called tenders.
“It was a point of differentiation for us at first,” Ensero says. “When you’d go to a competitor and order boneless wings, they’d serve you those tiny little nuggets, while we’d serve you a full-sized tender. Over time, we noticed that the phrase ‘boneless wings’ was getting some pushback from wing fanatics, so we decided to get ahead of that and switch the name.”
From Wing It On!’s perspective, those diehard wing fanatics are concentrated in the South, where the sales mix skews heavily toward bone-in wings. Further north, the sales mix is pretty even. Regardless of the regional preferences, diversity within the menu mix has helped Wing It On! hedge against volatile wing prices.
“For wings, the big advantage over tenders is simplicity in terms of kitchen operations, while the major disadvantage is the supply chain,” Ensero says. “We’ve seen several major shortages and sharp price fluctuations over the years, which makes it incredibly difficult to forecast long-term profitability.”
And while the price trend has inverted coming out of the pandemic, with costs for tenders significantly outpacing costs for bone-in wings, boneless products still have a more consistent supply chain.
“If I’ve learned anything these past 12 years, it’s that the chicken wing market is a roller coaster,” Ensero says. “You never really hear about chicken tender shortages, so that’s one major advantage. The other advantage is on the consumer side. They tend to hold up really well in a takeout and delivery environment, where it can be hard to maintain that perfect crisp on the wings. The disadvantage is that they’re a little more involved in terms of processes in the kitchen because we batter every tender fresh to order.”
Operational complexity has prevented Cowboy Chicken from adding tenders to its menu in the past. At one point, the fast-casual, wood-fired rotisserie chicken chain developed and tested a tender product called Rotissafried, where employees would batter and fry meat that was taken off the rotisserie chicken.
“Although it was delicious, it was super laborious from a kitchen perspective, so we shelved it,” says CMO Kim Jensen-Pitts. “We always kept our eye on a great tender product. They were the top items people requested when we did research with our customers.”
Cowboy Chicken revisited tenders last fall when it launched Smackbird, a virtual brand offering Nashville hot chicken tenders and sandwiches for delivery and pickup only. The concept was developed to help restaurants weather the pandemic and proved to be a hit with customers.
“Since we were already bringing this really high-quality chicken tender product into the building for Smackbird, we figured we’d leverage it for Cowboy Chicken, too,” Jensen-Pitts says. “We launched the platform in March, and it’s just been gangbusters ever since.”
Tenders already account for half of the brand’s kids meal sales and a “very high percentage” of its adult entree category, she says. They’re outperforming previous efforts to diversify the menu beyond rotisserie chicken, including a brisket offering that launched last summer to strong results.
Cowboy Chicken hasn’t ruled out the possibility of adding wings down the road. It’s a common request from customers, but something the brand isn’t pursuing too seriously yet.
“When you’re doing wood-fired rotisserie chicken that’s all-natural and isn’t full of steroids, you don’t get the biggest wings,” Jensen-Pitts says. “Our concern is always erosion of the brand, but you can never say never. We’ve done things that I would’ve never expected five years ago, like adding tenders and brisket. It’s been a pleasant surprise the way guests have gone along with us on those rides.”
Andy Howard is well versed in the benefits that come from widening a menu to include multiple parts of the chicken, but today, he’s focused squarely on tenders as the CEO of Huey Magoo’s. The industry veteran has spent nearly three decades in the poultry game, working with restaurants that specialize in just about every part of the bird.
After focusing on the whole chicken at Kenny Rogers Roasters and chicken breast at Ranch One, his third stop was Wingstop, which only sold wings when he arrived back in 2003. He was the driving force behind the brand’s expansion into boneless tenders. The move came in response to dramatic fluctuations in prices for bone-in wings.
“When wing prices went through the roof, we had to try something rather than just waiting around for the market to drop,” Howard says. “The bottom line was that you can’t run a business off a 40 percent cost of goods and make a profit.”
Boneless offerings drove topline sales and reduced the bottom line at Wingstop. They put the brand in front of a new segment of customers, with sales nearly equaling those of the bone-in wings.
“Knowing the success of what boneless did at Wingstop, I started looking for my next venture,” Howard says. “I thought, ‘Boy, if I could find the world’s greatest chicken tender with a Wingstop business model, that’d be the chain I want to buy.’”
That quest led him to Huey Magoo’s, a Florida-based fast-casual brand founded in 2004. Howard purchased the company in 2016 alongside former Wingstop executives Michael Sutter, Wes Jablonski, and Bill Knight. At the time, it was a three-unit concept operating in Florida. Now, it’s approaching its 50th store with locations spanning 10 states.
Howard credits the growth to the flagship product, which the company bills as the “filet mignon of chicken.” Starting with a precise tenderloin cut, the chicken is prepared from scratch, battered and breaded with a proprietary recipe, and served with a secret Magoo’s sauce. The menu is simple, featuring only hand-breaded, grilled, or sauced tenders. They’re served as meals and used in sandwiches, wraps, and salads.
“As far as the center of the plate, we’re very careful about not getting too far off of that beautiful tender,” Howard says. “From a customer demographic perspective, I think the product has a much wider appeal than wings. Don’t get me wrong, people still love a great wing, but I like to think that I saved the best for last with my fourth stop around the bird.”