A chicken only has two wings—an anatomical fact that poses a challenge for restaurants that focus on chicken wings. For several years, demand by both operators and consumers has outstripped supply, which has jacked up prices.
That could turn into an especially sticky problem in the first quarter of 2018, when the Super Bowl, NCAA basketball playoffs and peak hockey season converge and demand peaks.
At Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar, the food cost for bone-in chicken wings is now 40%, says Gary Huether, president and co-founder of the regional chain. “Ten years ago, wings averaged 89 cents per pound, with a food cost of about 15%-20%,” he says. “Wings and light beer were my least expensive buy. Now, it’s the opposite.” Like Buffalo Wild Wings, which raised menu prices for bone-in wings late last year, Arooga’s bumped up its own by 10%. But neither operator stopped there—both are applying several other strategies to push customers toward more profitable items. Here's how.
Moving guests around the menu
Late last fall, Arooga’s introduced combos on the wings page of its menu. Customers looking for wings can order five with a half-rack of ribs and fries for $14.99 or with sliders for $13.99—a deal that lowers Arooga’s food cost percentage to the low 30s. In addition, new menus are designed to “bury” wings, highlighting more profitable appetizers first, followed by soups and salads, burgers and then wings, says Huether.
There’s also innovation happening in the appetizer category, he adds, where new non-wing items such as best-seller Buffalo chicken dip are showcasing the popular wing sauces. Another deliberate move was the creation of a special menu section highlighting 12 burger variations. “Burgers now are getting more attention from customers, with a larger number of guests transferring wing orders to burgers,” says Huether.
Lower-priced boneless wings, a product made from more cost-effective chicken breast, have been on Arooga’s menu for nine years and yield a better profit margin. The chain also recently introduced faux wings made from mushrooms ($10.99 for seven pieces).
Like Arooga’s, BWW has long offered boneless chicken wings, but last November, the chain put them in the spotlight. “We shifted from bone-in to boneless wings for our Tuesday BOGO promotion ... to improve costs and make sure the supply doesn’t run out,” says Amy Smith, BWW’s director of culinary innovation.
In addition to samplers for larger parties, BWW is offering combo menus for groups in the off-premise space. It recently launched a party menu for eight or more eaters, geared toward sports fans who gather in groups at home. “Takeout business around big game days has improved quarter by quarter,” says Smith, adding that this will continue to be a focus.
Arooga’s is also ramping up off-premise business, both in catering and individual to-go orders, focusing on better-margin items. A tailgating package features 40 wings bundled with two lower-food-cost strombolis and a 2-liter soda.
Huether predicts that takeout and delivery will make up 20%-30% of business in the next five years. The advantage for these concepts: Wings travel well, as do most of the line extensions these operators are offering and exploring.