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The chicken market is carved into three portions: small bird (roughly 4 pounds), medium (roughly 6 pounds) and large (roughly 8 pounds).
Chicken chains like KFC and Popeyes rely on small birds. The medium bird is big in supermarket coolers, where GNP’s Gold’n Plump brand is found throughout the Twin Cities.
Along with trays of fresh chicken breasts, GNP sells wings by the pack. Some basic chicken math helps spell out the wing dilemma. A tray pack of four breasts requires two chickens, but a pack of 18 wings requires nine chickens.
So the smaller bird markets — GNP’s bread-and-butter — just don’t generate enough chicken wings at low enough prices for big purchasers like Buffalo Wild Wings, Roelofs said.
That’s where the superbird business — centered in the South — comes in, knocking out a huge supply of chicken pieces, including wings. The larger birds make economic sense, despite the wing market quirk.
They cost less per pound to produce and yield more precious breast meat, a consumer favorite, which can be fashioned into all sorts of things: chicken tenders or nuggets, “boneless” chicken wings and chicken breast sandwiches at restaurants.
The bigger the bird, the better for breast meat production. And with plenty of big birds, that means plenty of wings that are then scarfed up by wing buyers like Buffalo Wild Wings — and, for that matter, Joe Blow’s wing joint down the block.
It’s high wing season now. While the Super Bowl marks Buffalo Wild Wing’s biggest sales day, the NCAA Basketball Tournament is its busiest period each year, and Wild Wingers are likely paying more for wings this tournament season. The company, to deal with its own rising costs, raised prices across its entire menu by about 4 percent last fall.
It also began devising ways to cope with the issue of bigger wings. The firm is testing changes in wing portions at 64 of its approximately 900 U.S. restaurants.
Wild Wings declined to make an executive available for comment for this story.
But during a conference call with stock analysts last month, Wild Wings executives talked about servings centered on ounces, instead of pieces, of meat. “We have been testing different ounces of meat in let’s say the single, double [servings],” CEO Sally Smith told analysts.
That means five wings are sometimes sold in a small order instead of six.
Asked if customers are pushing back, Smith said no. “I think a lot of it has to do with how we explain to our guests, whether we say, OK, today we are serving five wings for a small order or six wings and making sure that ... [the] guest understands.”
Still, getting the equation right has been “a little more difficult than we anticipated,” Smith said. “It’s been really difficult to have a consistent ... message or consistent number of wings to the guests.”
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003