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Ahead Of Super Bowl, Chicken Wing Prices Spike

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, tomorrow, of course, is the big game, the Super Bowl. The Kansas City Chiefs are headed to Tampa Bay, Fla., to defend their title against the hometown Buccaneers.

It's been an interesting season during this year of COVID-19, what with all the new protocols. Large gatherings are still discouraged, which means your own viewing party is probably going to be smaller. So this next news may come as a bit of a shock at a time when people are already dealing with a lot, so let me just rip the Band-Aid off. There's a chicken wing shortage. We've called food writer Mike Pomranz to help explain the situation.

Mike Pomranz, thank you so much for joining us.

MIKE POMRANZ: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So I understand that it's not that we're totally out of wings, but what? Help me understand this situation.

POMRANZ: Well, it's - shortage is kind of a relative term. And what we're really looking at is a price spike. So it's not that you won't be able to necessarily find chicken wings if you want them, but when you do find them, they might be more expensive. And then places might be kind of discouraging you from trying to purchase wings if they're going to be having a tighter margin on the product than they would in previous years.

MARTIN: And why is that? What are the chicken trends that have contributed to this situation?

POMRANZ: Well, I always say the root cause of the issue is that chickens only have two wings, and that is not changing anytime soon.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

POMRANZ: And - but at the same time, the - you know, the chicken producers aren't necessarily - they don't grow the chickens for the wings. They're looking at the total weight, primarily breast meat of a chicken. So what you have is no matter what fluctuations happen as far as whether trying to grow bigger chickens or smaller chickens based on whatever the trend is for breast meat, the wings aren't necessarily changing as far as numbers go.

MARTIN: So, you know, early on during this whole coronavirus pandemic situation, NPR reported that because March Madness was canceled and because restaurants were closed, there was a surplus of chicken wings. Now, I know it's been almost a year, but, you know, what happened? Is the chicken wing market that volatile?

POMRANZ: It actually can be surprisingly volatile. And especially right now with COVID-19, we know everything has been upended, right? So when it first hit, the two biggest events of the year for chicken wings are Super Bowl and then March Madness. And the Super Bowl last year went out without a hitch. But then we had March Madness was canceled. So, yes, there was kind of a dramatic decrease in chicken wings sales, and we had this kind of stockpile.

Obviously, you know, you're going to have - the producers are going to try to adjust to that. The industry's going to try and adjust. But at the same time, then you have supply chain issues of whatever issues are going on because of COVID, worker issues. So they're trying to kind of recalibrate everything from top to bottom.

But then what has also happened is as the industry's been trying to sort out what's been going on, the consumer has changed their habits as well. So consumers are now doing more, you know, delivery, and chicken wings have been huge for delivery. There's also another trend where people are trying to be a bit more experimental in the kitchen at home because they have more time at home. There's also been an increase in retail sales of chicken wings - both, you know, at the meat counter and even frozen chicken wings, sales have skyrocketed.

MARTIN: Tell me about that. So you're saying people are really digging the chicken wings at home. That's interesting.

POMRANZ: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: I don't know why I thought that this is more like a go out food. Tell me about this.

POMRANZ: The main pressure on - is still coming from people ordering delivery. Some of the biggest chains in the country have actually launched delivery-only wing side projects, basically, where you have Applebee's and even Chuck E. Cheese, which relied entirely on people coming into the restaurant - Chuck E. Cheese opened a new brand called Pasqually's Pizza and Wings to try and deliver out wings and pizzas to people to make up for lost revenue of kids coming in to play games or whatever.

So we've seen it a lot in delivery. But at the same time, you have people saying, well, you know, I want comfort food, which is a - one part of it, too. You know, what can I do as far as trying to - comfort foods to make at home? So there has been an uptick in people actually wanting to make wings at home as well.

MARTIN: So the demand is higher than ever. Is this the first reported chicken wing shortage we've ever had? I take your point it's not really a shortage. Is it a shortage? Is it a scarcity? Like, we're going to pay more because there's less out there. What's the deal here?

POMRANZ: Right. So we have fresh chicken wings and frozen wings. There's always kind of this reserve as far as frozen wings distributors can pull out of. So, like I said, it's unlikely we're going to run out of chicken wings. That said, these kind of patterns have happened a lot in wings. It's dynamic because for a long time, wings were kind of, you know, the throwaway part of the chicken that, OK, toss them out to, you know, bars to serve during, you know, football or whatever.

But because it's now become this big trend where everyone wants wings, you have this weird price fluctuation where wings per pound cost about double what the breast meat of a chicken costs right now. That is even though the breast meat still is the bulk of the sales that they're growing the chickens for. So then you also have this issue where for a while, people were trying to maximize breast meat on chickens. You have them growing chickens bigger but still having two wings.

And you've had to switch back now where people want smaller breasts, in part driven by the chicken sandwich wars we've seen through places like Popeye's. And they want smaller breasts because those are kind of juicier or better for creating sandwiches. So that's why you see these kind of massive fluctuations - because the only way they can change the production level for wings is to have more birds. But that's not necessarily their goal as far as producing the birds.

MARTIN: Do you like wings?

POMRANZ: I love wings. Yeah, definitely - breaded, of course. Got to go breaded.

MARTIN: Which - I was going to say...

POMRANZ: I know it's controversial...

MARTIN: Yeah, tell me - lay it on me. What's your favorite wing treatment?

POMRANZ: I like breaded. I like hot - lot of spice...

MARTIN: Go for the spice - got it.

POMRANZ: ...As much spice as I can handle.

MARTIN: So if people can't get their hands on any wings, or they're not willing to pay the price for the wings that they can get, what do you recommend?

POMRANZ: Well, I think a lot of times, you see restaurants - if they're losing the margins on the wings, they want to push these boneless wings - right? - which are somewhat controversial because there's no - you know, there's no such thing as a boneless wing. These are basically just chicken tenders prepared like buffalo wings. And to be honest, I think those make decent replacements. But I've kind of gone all-in recently.

If you can't get wings, I would recommend buffalo chicken dip, which you get all that kind of - you get the Buffalo spice. You get that - you know, a dip is clearly a great - you've got to have dips for the Super Bowl. And the thing is, you can make buffalo chicken dip with any part of the chicken. You basically just use cubed or shredded chicken and throw it in there. To me, that's like - you get to dip your nachos and whatever. That's a Super Bowl food right there. And it's less of a mess, really.

MARTIN: Radical thought - hadn't thought of that. Thank you. And what about our vegetarian and vegan friends? What do we recommend for them?

POMRANZ: Well, there are a lot of vegetarian options out there. Obviously, you're not going to get a proper wing, but they are faux wings. In fact, Fatburger just introduced onto their menu nationwide vegetarian wings. You could order, or you can make your own vegetarian wings at home by purchasing veggie nuggets or something along veggie tenders and then just toss them in buffalo sauce yourself.

MARTIN: All right. That was Mike Pomranz. He is a freelance food and beverage writer. And he recently wrote about that chicken wing shortage for Food and Wine. Mike Pomranz thank you so much.

POMRANZ: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF I SHOOT FIRST'S "RIGHT ABOVE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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