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Keeping Abreast of National Wing Shortage

From William Neuman, New York Times: Just in time for football season, the Lion’s Head Tavern in New York City stopped selling 25-cent chicken wings on Monday nights. In Tucson, a sports bar called O’Malleys on Fourth scrapped its fall special of a dozen wings on Monday nights for $4.

And in restaurants from Sarasota to Seattle, an improbable poultry part is showing up on menus: a little chunk of chicken breast that is fried and sauced and sold, with marketer’s brio, as a “boneless wing.”

All this is happening because wholesale chicken prices have turned upside down. The once-lowly wing is selling at a premium over what has long been the gold standard of poultry parts, the skinless boneless chicken breast.

Like the tail that wags the dog, the wings are now flapping the chicken.

Mike Bell knows chicken prices. The logistics and purchasing manager for Buffalo Wild Wings, a national chain with about 600 restaurants, Mr. Bell will buy 57 million pounds of chicken wings this year. Describing recent conversations with poultry processors, he said: “Basically a whole bunch of them are throwing their hands in the air and saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. We’ve never seen it this way.’ ”

In seven of the last 11 months, wholesale wing prices have been higher than breast prices, a reversal in a market where breasts usually reign supreme. In September, the average wholesale price for whole chicken wings in the Northeast was $1.48 a pound, according to the Agriculture Department. Yet skinless boneless breasts were $1.21 a pound.

A year earlier, wings sold for 94 cents and breasts for $1.15, and as recently as May 2008, skinless boneless breasts were selling for 57 cents more than wings.

The wholesale price shift has generally not been reflected in supermarkets, where grocers appear to be trying to preserve their margins on breast meat. Nationally on average, breasts are $2.80 a pound at retail, still 83 cents more than wings. However, some grocers are exploiting the wholesale price drop to run aggressive sales on breasts.

The recession is the cause of the price flip-flop.

Restaurants, normally big buyers of breast meat, slashed orders as millions of people cut back on eating out, and breast prices slumped. But demand for wings has remained strong, partly because people perceived them as a cheap luxury.

Adding to the demand: the brisk growth of restaurant chains focusing on wings, like Atomic Wings, Wingstop and Wing Zone. Several chains have been remarking this year about how much business is up in the recession. The major public company in this group, Buffalo Wild Wings, reported a 27 percent earnings jump in the first half of the year.

Eventually, as the economy improves, wing and breast prices may return to their traditional places. But for now, the triumph of wings over breasts has wing partisans celebrating. Full Story  
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