For many, they have been a pandemic comfort food, as well as some of the first meals eaten with friends when pubs and restaurants opened up this summer.
While chicken wings may look deliciously simple on a plate, serving them has become a more complex and pricey proposition recently.
In the wake of higher prices for poultry, chicken feed and canola oil — not to mention the vagaries of international shipping — restaurants say dishing out this pub favourite is becoming more expensive.
As restaurants have reopened, a tight market has developed for wings and had some businesses hustling to make sure they can get all the supply they need.
Canadian chicken production is increasing, however, which the sector expects will improve the availability of wings.
“I have been predicting or expecting that wing prices would be declining for about the last … six to 12 months, and they keep on going higher,” said livestock market analyst Kevin Grier. “They have defied gravity.”
Wing prices rise
Chicken wings, of course, aren’t alone in facing inflationary pressures these days. But they do illustrate some of the challenges the pandemic has created for the food industry and supply chains.
“Can you imagine what a wing night on Tuesday is going to be like with no wings?” said Rob Dobrowolski, owner of Bonzzini’s Brew Pub in Regina.
It’s a funny question for a restaurant that’s been flush with wings recently, but it’s something Dobrowolski has been pondering.
“One of our suppliers already said they won’t have wings until December,” said Dobrowolski, who buys imported wings.
“Right now, wings are still available, but they definitely went up in price.“
Dobrowolski said the price of his last order was up 20 per cent, and he thinks it could go higher still.
Prices vary, however, depending on the agreements that chains or restaurants have with their suppliers. Smaller restaurants may face more price volatility.
Steven Erlich of Toronto-based Duff’s Famous Wings said their wing orders have largely been met, though prices have crept upwards. He said his suppliers were facing challenges last month but that inventory seems to have become “a little bit more stable” recently.
Katie McKenzie, president of B.C.-based Wings Restaurants & Pubs, said that in the last six to eight months, they’ve seen a roughly 30 per cent increase in raw material costs. She pointed to rising chicken feed costs as one of the key factors in why she’s paying more.
Industry figures provided to CBC News indicate that wholesale wing prices were up about 14 per cent per kilogram in mid-August compared with the same month a year ago and up 35 per cent from August 2019.
This comes during what some call a tight wings market — one driven by strong demand but which has also been influenced by external, even international factors.
Pandemic production shift
Early in the pandemic last year, public health restrictions saw many restaurants close and Canada’s food industry had to make adjustments.
Consumer shopping at grocery stores surged, including purchases of chicken. But it wasn’t enough to make up for the gap left by food service, like restaurants. In Canada, about 40 per cent of chicken production is for food service, says the Chicken Farmers of Canada (CFC).
NPD Canada, which tracks food service industry trends, said restaurant sales of chicken wings have fallen by around five per cent over the last 18 months, although their popularity as a takeout item has helped grow their share of the overall food-service basket of goods over that same period.
Chicken production was scaled back by about 10 to 12 per cent for the spring-summer period of 2020, said the CFC’s Lisa Bishop-Spencer. Now, as restaurants opened back up and demand strengthened further, chicken production has also ramped back up.
(Canada’s chicken industry uses a supply management system where farmers, processors and members of the restaurant business meet every eight weeks to decide how much chicken to produce, according to market demand.)
Through the remainder of this year, chicken production is going to be higher than it was in 2019 and 2020, industry officials told CBC News.
“That’s the good news for those who find market conditions a bit tight right now, or prices to be a little bit high,” said Jean-Michel Laurin of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council.
“But one thing that’s not going to change is that chickens only come with two wings.”
In other words, the sector can’t produce excess chicken just to meet domestic wing demand. To satisfy that particular appetite, Canada also imports wings.
But that’s had its hurdles this year, too.
The U.S. and Brazil connection
The United States and Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of frozen poultry, have also had issues in recent months that had an effect on the availability of wings.
A surprisingly hard winter storm that hit Texas and nearby states had an impact on chicken flocks. At the same time, the American appetite for the pub delicacy was sky-high.
A long-time market watcher, Grier said U.S. demand for wings has been “off the charts.”
“We haven’t been able to get our hands on them because they’ve kept them there and prices are high,” Grier said. He also pointed out that Brazil has had logistical issues, which observers link in part to an international shortage of shipping containers.
More broadly, some raised the spectre this summer of a global shortage of chicken wings, though industry officials and analysts say Canada has not had shortages.
Customers are back … but costs are up
Charlene Pellerin, owner of the Calgary establishment Mug Shotz Sport Bar & Grill, said navigating the ups and downs of the pandemic was “very challenging,” but people were lined up out the door of her restaurant again this summer.
The bar, known for its long list of homemade sauces, has been selling more than 1,100 kilograms of wings per week and didn’t have problems securing them from a local processor. That’s the good news.
They are also paying more for things like plastic gloves, food and fryer oil, which she said has almost doubled in cost. The combination of those factors saw the restaurant bump up prices.
Meanwhile, hiring more employees hasn’t been easy.
“My husband and I have had to jump back in as staff members to make things work, and we’re just continuing to get busier and busier,” Pellerin said.
Still, she is pleased to see customers return.
“It’s been a huge roller-coaster ride during this pandemic, but we’ve seen the other side of it,” Pellerin said. “Demand for wings — that’s right back to where it used to be.”