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US: Chicken wings take flight

Once a lowbrow bar staple, chicken wings are finding their way into upscale restaurants, ethnic cuisine, even vegetarian menus. Wings are driving scorching sales at specialty chains, getting the gourmet treatment at fancy restaurants and even emerging in good-for-you vegan versions. Their presence on menus has increased 19% since 2009, according to market research firm Mintel, reports the LA Times.

“They’re going gangbusters,” said Nick Setyan, a restaurant analyst with Wedbush Securities. “These wings guys were the only ones able to take advantage of this kind of environment.”

The dish can thank the recession and the burgeoning snacking and street food culture for its meteoric popularity.

Chicken managed to evade the rising food prices that made beef and pork especially expensive last year. Although chicken breasts still command the majority of chicken sales, wings now constitute 9% — the same percentage as drumsticks and nearly as much as whole chickens, according to consulting firm Nielsen Perishables Group.

In all, 36 billion wing segments were sold domestically last year, or about 115 wing bits per person.

Specialty establishments such as Wingstop and Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar — whose stock has soared more than 150% since the end of the downturn — are among the 10 fastest-growing restaurant chains in the country, according to research group Technomic. In California, companies such as Hotwings and Big Wangs are also expanding.

More than a third of all chain eateries now offer wings in some form…. But as wing demand soars, their cost is also booming.

Last summer, wing costs were at a multiyear low of 90 cents a pound. They’ve since more than doubled, said William Roenigk, chief economist at the National Chicken Council.

About 9 billion chickens are produced each year, yielding two wings, each of which has three edible sections — the drumette, the flapper and the wing tip. The tips are usually exported to Asia, leaving about 36 billion wing parts for US consumption.

Supply is dependent on demand for chicken breasts, which lately has been low, Roenigk said. And as the birds get meatier, farmers see less need to produce more of them.

And with NFL season approaching, analysts don’t expect wing prices to retreat until mid-2013. But the high prices haven’t pushed wings off menus, Roenigk said.

“Rather than charging $5 for eight wings, they can now charge $12,” he said. “Restaurant owners are getting more creative and upscale.”

LA Times: Read the full article

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