Chicken wing shortage? Yet another strange pandemic complication coming to a bar near you

Mackensy Lunsford
Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE - If things get worse, Rich Cundiff said he'll have to start listing wings on the menu at "market price."

He was joking, but the pressure on chicken prices is real. 

Wings represent about 20% of the business at Cundiff's Rocky's Hot Chicken Shack restaurants. The price of chicken in general has been unstable, but cost on wings spiked 56% last quarter, he said.

Value is a big part of his chicken restaurants' model, so Cundiff has been reluctant to pass the price hike along to consumers. "Basically everyone I know is raising prices, and we have not done that in a couple of years," he said. 

Looking for chicken wings? You may end up paying more than you expect.

But if wholesale prices keep flying high, he said, that may have to change.

Grocery prices:Seeing sticker shock at the grocery store? Here's why, and what some stores made in 2020

Chicken wing prices often rise and fall with the rhythm of sports events, reaching their zenith around the Super Bowl. It's something Cundiff and his staff usually ride out.

This year, however, wings costs did not recede. "Now it's getting worse than ever," he said. 

"It's not just chicken wings, it's a lot of things to be honest," said Cody Stokes, a sales consultant with Sysco, a major food service distribution company.

Demand is putting pressure on beef, with meat plants still struggling to catch up, he said. Processing plants have labor issues like seemingly everyone else, putting a strain on everything from ribs to bacon. 

"So much comes down to labor issues in the supply chain," Stokes said. 

The current — and very likely temporary — wing shortage is also based in part on pent-up demand, with people going back to bars and staying out later. Wings, like pizza, also travel well for takeout, Stokes said.

Backyard barbecues are also back in full force as the weather warms and families begin to gather again, putting strain on the retail side.  

Put together, that's driven up demand for chicken wings by 20-30%, even as production dropped 20-30%, Stoked estimated. 

'Only two wings on a chicken'

Meanwhile, distributors must mete out a certain allotment of cases of wings per week among wholesale customers. As a salesperson, Stokes also works to suggest other bar-friendly fare — popcorn chicken anyone?

But until things stabilize, he said the onus is on customers to not fret over missing menu items and potentially higher prices. "It's crazy what we go through to get a case of chicken breast or steak to a restaurant," he said. 

Dave Byrley opened Iconic Kitchen and Drinks in 2020 near McCormick Field, banking on the soon-to-come traffic from the ball field and under-construction condos.

At Iconic Kitchen & Drinks, owner Dave Byrley recently blew through 4-5 cases, or hundreds of chicken wings, on one industry-focused night. That was unusual, he said, but he always keeps an overstock in case of a similar spike in demand. He hasn't had a supply issue yet, but the cost of chicken is indeed on the rise. 

As such, he's had to mark up his wings from $7.99 to $9.99 for a half-dozen. Customers have yet to bat an eye.

Business amid pandemic:What's ahead for restaurant industry as COVID-19 pandemic recedes? Local experts weigh in

"I think it's being downtown, where everything is more expensive anyway," he said. 

At the One Stop at Asheville Music Hall, owner Brian Good said wings, sold six different ways, rank among the most popular thing on his menu. With supply shaky and a preference for fresh over frozen, he sometimes runs out.

Good charges $10 for about eight wings, and hasn't had to raise prices — yet.

"But the price is absolutely ridiculous," he said. "I have to go back every week just to make sure I'm not losing money on them."

With cost on wings doubling in the past year, he'll eventually have to relent. Unfortunately, he said, chicken wings have a reputation as cheap bar fare. 

"I don't know what the answer is," he said. "There's only two wings on a chicken."

__

Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.

Reach me:  mlunsford@citizentimes.com.

Read more: Subscribe to the Citizen Times here. Subscribe to my newsletter here