DOVER — When it comes to comfort food consumed during the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears as if the wing was king.
However, the increased demand for chicken wings over the past 14 months has led to a nationwide shortage of the small but versatile pieces of poultry, which, when seasoned with hot sauce, teriyaki sauce, lemon pepper or a variety of dry rubs, are often the perfect companion to a night out or a sporting event.
Restaurant owners in Delaware — such as Tom Armstrong, who owns Tom’s Bullpen in Dover’s The Shoppes at Hamlet — are feeling the pinch.
He said chicken wings are his most popular menu item but added that the increased cost is getting difficult to cover.
“The chicken wing shortage has caused the prices to go up high — it’s like double the money that they used to be,” Mr. Armstrong said. “I think I’m paying around 79 cents a piece for wings, when they used to be around 38 cents.
“I haven’t increased my prices … at least not yet. Nobody seems to know if it’s going to go back down or go back up. They just told me that there was a shortage of supply because people are not working at the plants as much. I hope the prices don’t go up anymore. I can’t afford it, and I know a lot of other people can’t afford it, either.”
National chains like Buffalo Wild Wings — which has franchises in Dover, Rehoboth Beach, Middletown, Bear and Newark — are also having issues with the wing shortage, replying to a customer on Twitter on Thursday about the lack of supply.
“We’re sorry about running out of wings,” the chain said in the tweet. “It’s been a busy few weeks & many of our sports bars have a limited supply. We’re working to get more in stock and encourage you to try some of our other items like boneless wings, hand-breaded chicken sandwiches or burgers.”
The reason for the chicken wing shortage comes from a variety of factors, including outbreaks of COVID-19 in meat-processing plants, especially early on in the pandemic, forcing many of them to temporarily close and straining the supply chain.
Then, in Texas in February, Winter Storm Uri took a bite out of supply when some poultry farms had to temporarily shut down because of the weather.
Tom Super of the National Chicken Council hasn’t declared a nationwide chicken shortage but did admit that wing supplies are strained.
“No doubt the wing supply is tight right now,” he said. “But I wouldn’t go as far as to say there is a ‘shortage.’
“Chicken producers are doing everything they can to overcome the devastating impact of Mother Nature, when she inflicted the once-in-a-lifetime winter storm on Texas and nearby states — major chicken-producing regions. It will take time and effort to eventually replace the impacted hatchery supply flocks in that region, but supply should catch back up to demand soon.”
The popularity of chicken wings during the pandemic was spurred by the fact that they travel well and hold up during delivery. Not to mention the fact that they are the perfect comfort food, which nearly everybody was looking for while being shuttered inside.
Suddenly, drums and flats were all the rage.
In restaurants, servings of chicken wings were up 7% in 2020 compared to 2019, despite an 11% decline in trips to eateries over the same time, according to the NPD Group, a market researcher.
Additionally, IRI — a large data-collecting group — said the total U.S. wing retail/supermarket sales during the pandemic months totaled almost $3 billion, up 10.3% from a year ago. Meanwhile, the in-store frozen-wing category is up an astounding 37.2%.
“I found that ordering chicken wings for pickup at Wings to Go in Dover kind of brought a sense of normalcy during what has been a crazy year,” said Billy Jacobs of Dover. “I could get my wings, my beverage of choice, and sit back and watch football during the winter.
“It was kind of like my insulation from what seemed like a constant barrage of bad news and a pandemic.”
Aisha Murray of Lincoln agreed that wings provided her with some warmth and comfort over a long, lonely winter.
“I cook my own wings with my air fryer and use my own special wing rub — the ingredients are top-secret,” she said, with a laugh. “Wings have a way of warming you up inside. They never seem to disappoint.”
Numbers provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture also backed up a huge demand for wings during the pandemic.
According to the most recent Cold Storage Reports provided by the USDA, there was a 29% reduction in November and a 24% reduction in December in year-over-year wing inventories in cold storage, which means that restaurants and retailers took a lot of wings out of freezers and stocked up months in advance for the NFL’s Super Bowl in February.
A recent survey conducted by the NCC provided further proof that the pandemic couldn’t keep people away from their wings — in fact, one-quarter of respondents said they ate more wings during the pandemic. Additional findings included:
It’s not just the wings of chicken that have been in demand throughout the pandemic.
Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, KFC, Burger King and McDonald’s have also seen chicken sandwich sales boom amid the coronavirus, also trying to outpace supply.
The good news is that there are always other options to control that chicken craving.
If your favorite wing spot or restaurant is running low on wings, or if the prices are too high, people can consider having boneless wings instead, which are made from more easily obtainable breast meat.
There is no shortage on chicken breasts, tenders or even nuggets, according to retailers.
Mr. Armstrong joked that maybe the simple math that one chicken only has two wings finally caught up to it.
“You get two drums and two wings off one bird, and I guess they sell the rest as breasts or whatever, but there’s just a limited number of wings on birds,” he said. “I hope (the poultry industry) comes back strong and lowers the price a little bit.
“I know this time of year, because of the Fourth of July, they always raise the prices up about that time. Normally, February through June they’re down, but this is anything but a normal year.”