As Super Bowl 50 approaches, sports fans and restaurants across the nation are preparing for the big day in the same way: planning their game-day menus. Any party host could tell you pigs in a blanket and chips and dip are old news. Chicken wings have become America’s new favorite party food, just as at home on snack tables for birthday parties or baby showers as they are at tailgates. CHD Expert, the Chicago-based foodservice data and analytics firm, evaluated the current chicken wing landscape of the United States to share trends and offer insights into the chicken wing market.

As of December 2015, there are more than 3,200 restaurants in the U.S. dedicated primarily to Chicken Wings. Approximately 31 percent of these restaurants are full service, and 69 percent are classified as limited service. By definition, full-service restaurants provide table service, whereas limited-service establishments require patrons to pay at a counter before being served their food.

While some chicken wing chain restaurants have become household names, a majority of chicken wing restaurants in the U.S. are considered independent operators. CHD Expert defines an independent operator as a brand with nine or fewer units in operation. A restaurant becomes a chain when it has 10 or more units in operation. Among the chicken wing menu type, approximately 78 percent of full-service restaurants are independent, and approximately 45 percent of limited-service restaurants are independent.

According to CHD Expert’s foodservice database, Easy2FIND, more than 300 new chicken wing restaurants opened in 2015, including more than 30 in December 2015. Considering years in business, 53 percent of chicken wing restaurants in the U.S. have been in operation for five-plus years and 22 percent have been open 2–5 years. There are many young operators bursting onto the scene to serve their rendition of this popular dish.

Chicken wing restaurants have a strong showing in the southern U.S. In terms of popularity by state (in terms of number of units), Georgia ranks first with 2.02 percent of the state’s total restaurant landscape being made up of chicken wing restaurants. Alabama and Tennessee round out the top three, with chicken wing restaurants comprising just over 1 percent of each state’s restaurant landscape.

Today’s chicken wing aficionados might not believe it, but it wasn’t that long ago that the now-beloved chicken wing was considered a worthless cut of meat that was either tossed out or only used for making stock. While the true origin story of chicken wings is somewhat disputed, many people believe the Buffalo wing enjoyed across the U.S. got its start when the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, received an accidental shipment of chicken wings and the owners made the best of it by tossing the wings in hot sauce, vinegar, and butter.

Chicken wings have evolved over the past 50 years as home cooks and restaurant chefs across the nation began to experiment with new flavors and applied the principles of fusion cuisine to the humble chicken wing. Most recently, Buffalo Wild Wings made headlines in September 2015 after announcing a new wing sauce that lists Mountain Dew among its ingredients. The chain hopes to attract new, younger customers with bolder flavors.

Overall, the chicken wing restaurant industry seems to be as bold as the flavors that come out of its kitchens. Emerging New York City favorite Atomic Wings recently became international with a restaurant in Mexico City, and continues domestic growth with plans to open in Baltimore and Springfield in 2016.

According to CHD Expert’s Easy2FIND, the top five chicken wing chains in the United States in terms of number of units and market share are Wingstop (44 percent), Pizza Hut’s WingStreet (25 percent), Hurricane Grill & Wings (6 percent), Wow Café & Wingery (4 percent), and Wing Zone (4 percent). As for Buffalo Wild Wings, its 1,100-plus full-service restaurants with full bar, are classified as a Bar & Grill, however be assured there are plenty of wings on the menu.

These chains are likely already preparing for the rush they’ll see on Super Bowl Sunday as hungry sports fans place take-out orders or settle into a booth for a long night of football and food. In its 2015 Wing Report, the National Chicken Council reported that 1.25 billion chicken wings were eaten during Super Bowl XLIX.

Chicken wings have evolved from a bar snack into one of America’s favorite culinary sensations and not just in chicken wing-specific restaurants. Chicken wings are found in restaurants of almost any menu type, often as an appetizer.

“Wings have evolved into a billion-dollar product and they exemplify how a food can inspire creativity and stimulate economic consumption,” says Cathy Kearns, general manager at CHD Expert. “As consumers demand more wings on the menu, the entire supply chain feels the pull, and not just for poultry, but from cooking equipment to ingredients. There are countless variables that go into putting food on the plate and understanding these operators is invaluable for industry suppliers.”

CHD Expert evaluated the most recent data within its foodservice database and packaged the most interesting facts and figures into a trends report designed to help foodservice industry professionals better understand the popularity of chicken wing restaurants in the U.S.

Consumer Trends, News