After two years of high prices and shrinking supply, Super Bowl Sunday promises to be a banner day for restaurants specializing in chicken wings.
“Our wholesale jumbo wing quotations started the year at $.77/lb., which was the lowest start to the year since 1998. Values have rebounded some since then and are currently $.94/lb. but are still over 64% lower than in 2022,” said Matt Busardo, poultry market reporter at Urner Barry, a protein market resource for the food industry.
Operators are in a much happier place.
“We experienced 100% inflation on cases of wings during Covid, but we’re now back to pre-Covid normalcy with prices better than expected,” said Whitney Mann, executive VP of operations for 32-unit East Coast Wings & Grill. “Super Bowl will be much more profitable for us because wing prices have come down, we locked in supply and we fine-tuned Super Bowl procedures to assure less waste.”
Last year, the Winston-Salem, N.C. full-service chain sold 150,070 bone-in wings and 34,984 boneless wings on gameday, and similar sales numbers are expected on Feb. 12, with dine-in orders projected to make up 22% of business and to-go and third-party delivery sales at 78%.
While the bulk of East Coast Wings & Grill locations are in North Carolina, one franchised restaurant is in Philadelphia, and with the hometown Eagles in the big game, sales should skyrocket. “During the NFL playoff game last week against the 49ers, business was up 300% at this store over last year,” said Mann.
Super Bowl is also a big day for FAT Brands. Across its portfolio of 2,300 restaurants, 40% serve wings. These include the obvious, such as Hurricane Grill & Wings, Native Grill & Wings and Buffalo’s Cafe, as well as concepts like Twin Peaks and Fazoli’s.
On Super Bowl Sunday, the three wing-focused brands will prepare to sell about 30 tons of wings, according to FAT Brands CEO Andy Wiederhorn. And last time the championship was played in Glendale, Ariz., the venue for Super Bowl LVII, the Native Grill location in that city saw a 300%-400% boost in sales each day, from Thursday through Sunday.
Setting the game plan
But with that volume, profitability is very dependent on efficiencies.
To gear up franchisees for the Feb. 12 Super Bowl rush, East Coast Wings & Grill releases protocols and supporting documents in October. Procedures are precisely detailed, from ordering product to execution, speedy payment by customers and more.
If an operator is new to the system, corporate team members are sent onsite for support and extra labor. “And it’s a blackout day for employees—no time-off requests are permitted,” said Mann.
“When pre-orders come into a location, they can be so high—2,500 wings every 30 minutes—that the unit switches off the dine-in option and goes all in on takeout. One-third of stores that meet a certain sales threshold do to-go orders only from the start, selling only bone-in and boneless wings in increments of 25.”
Balancing profits and value
Wild chicken price surges coupled with inflationary pressures pushed menu prices up at wing concepts. Although wing costs have come down, menu prices have not. That, and the sales volume expected on Super Bowl weekend, adds up to improved margins on wings.
But customers are feeling inflationary pressures, too. “To provide value and loyalty to our guests, we are offering more LTO specials featuring chicken wings,” said Wiederhorn. “Some to-go orders have platter pricing, like 18 wings for the price of 12. Marketing will direct people to deals.”
At one Hurricane Grill & Wings location, consumers get $10 off when they pre-order 50 wings before Feb. 8. And they’ll be entered for the chance to win a “Wing Party,” scoring 100 free wings.
Consumers are amplifying the need for value now, Mann agrees. East Coast Wings & Grill avoided menu price hikes in 2020 and 2021, but took a small increase of $.25-$.50 in 2022 to offset higher labor costs and inflation.
The chain provides value by offering a very wide variety of heat and flavor combinations and an efficient ordering process. There are no special LTOs for Super Bowl, but this year, there’s a brand promotion for consumers who sign up for the loyalty program by Feb. 1—they earn a chance to win one of five big screen TVs and 100-wing packages.
What’s ahead for March Madness?
While Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest single day for wing sales at East Coast, March is the busiest month.
Will wing supply and prices remain favorable through the March Madness basketball season?
Wiederhorn sees some chicken producers pulling back so they can increase their margins, which will decrease supply and potentially raise prices.
“There’s been an oversupply in the wing market for the past few months, but that is ending as suppliers have moderated their flocks,” he said. “Historically, we would expect a 10% to 20% increase in costs between Jan. 1 and Super Bowl Sunday, with costs then rising more moderately through the beginning of March Madness.”
This year, the rate of increase should be less, but Wiederhorn forecasts that it could be in the range of $8-$10 higher per case. If flocks are greatly reduced, “we could see $10-$12 higher per case than current,” he said.
Urner Barry’s Busardo is a bit more optimistic.
“Historically speaking, values typically move higher this time of year as football-related buying is taking place … But from a supply standpoint, frozen wing inventory in USDA Cold Storage was recorded to end December at 82 million pounds, which is the third highest tonnage since 2003. This high level of inventory allows buyers to be more selective in their dealings as they have a fallback option if fresh product is being marketed too high for their liking.”
Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.