Remember 10-cent wings?
These days, that's as likely as the Bills making the playoffs.
Demand for Buffalo wings – the Nickel City's fiercely loved, hot-sauce smothered, bleu- cheese dipped celery sidekick that has become one of the nation's must-have Super Bowl finger foods – has sent prices for the chicken parts soaring.
Locally, wing purveyors have raised their prices – to nearly a dollar or even more per wing.
And that has restaurant owners squawking.
The increase has prompted John & Mary's in Hamburg to put a sign in the window apologizing to customers.
“Fresh wings are around $91 a case, and according to what we've been told by our supplier, it's supposed to go up to $100 a case,” co-owner Susan Raymond said. That's up from $83 a case in early December.
The restaurant is now charging $9.29 for 10 wings, $15.99 for 20 and $29.29 for a bucket of 50.
At the Anchor Bar, costs were passed on to customers a couple of months ago. Now, an order of 10 wings goes for $13, and 20 wings sell for $20. Like other restaurants that sell wings, the savings increase as the orders get larger.
“Let me tell you something. This year we had the drought and the [poor corn crop], so the chicken price goes up,” said Ivano Toscani, Anchor Bar's executive chef. “I think it's just an excuse to raise the price. Every year is the same story, and at the end of the story is always money, money, money.”
Every year, as the Super Bowl approaches, it's not uncommon for the wholesale price of wings to increase as restaurants and grocery stores stock up for the second biggest food weekend of the year for Americans.
The National Chicken Council, based in Washington, D.C., predicted in its “Wing Report” that Americans would be scarfing down 1.2 billion wing portions (drumsticks and “flats” of each wing) this Superbowl weekend.
The average price of wings in the Northeast is now $2.11 a pound, up 26 cents from last year and the most expensive ever, according the chicken council. Whether the wings are fresh or frozen also affects price.
In addition, production is down 1 percent over last year due to high corn and feed prices attributable to last summer's drought. There's also less corn available, the council said, because of a government requirement that 40 percent of the corn crop be used for ethanol.
The high demand during the Super Bowl comes as no surprise to Buffalo's “wing king,” Drew Cerza, founder of the annual Buffalo Wing Festival, which draws thousands of wing enthusiasts every summer.
“When you eat wings, it's almost like participating in an athletic event,” Cerza tried to convince a Buffalo News reporter. “You're not using a wimpy fork and knife,” he explained. “You're using your hands. You can go for the drumstick or the flat. There are 100 different ways to eat wings. You can wipe your hand on a napkin or on your pants ... It's just a fun food to eat. It's become synonymous with watching football.”
In 1964, Anchor Bar co-owner and Buffalo's unofficial fairy godmother Teressa Bellissimo had an inspired idea for a late-night snack for her son and his buddies. As the story goes, she found some wings, deep-fried them, then tossed them in hot sauce and served them with celery sticks and blue cheese dressing.
Waistlines across the nation would never be the same.
But as Super Bowl XLVII approaches, the recent higher prices of wings don't seem to be hurting business at the Anchor Bar.
Toscani and his crew prepared 15,000 pounds of wings to be flash frozen and shipped via FedEx to wing aficionados across the country and as far as Alaska.
He said he has' an additional 5,000 pounds for takeout orders Sunday.
Regardless of the rising prices, Susan Raymond of John & Mary's said the cost won't drive her to skimp on quality.
“If I used a smaller wing, the customer won't be back. You can't change a product, you have to give them what they're used to,” Raymond said.
She also said she has no way of knowing if the explanation for the cost increases is on the level. “We're relying on our supplier and the sales people, who are told what the market is going to do. We have no other way to justify it or not,” Raymond said.
Buffalo Wild Wings, a national chain based in Minneapolis with more than 600 restaurants, has not raised its prices in some time, a spokeswoman said. Orders of six wings go for $5.99, and a dozen for $11.29.
Duff's Famous Wings in Eastern Hills Mall, where 10 wings sell for $10.95 and go up to 30 wings for $27.95, also hasn't seen a cost increase for its fresh wings, or raised prices in some time, according to manager Nathan Aldinger.
He suggested the small chain's high-volume sales may have locked in a better price.
Cerza said Buffalo-area wing restaurants face tough decisions. Prices don't appear to be going down, and local demand doesn't seem to be ebbing.
Restaurants in other parts of the country have found success offering “boneless chicken wings,” cut-up chicken breasts that are breaded and deep fried, as an alternative.
“It's a lot less expensive,” at about $1.36 per pound, Cerza said.
But that might not sit well with die-hard Buffalonians who scoff at even substituting ranch for traditional bleu cheese dressing.
“We are not a boneless market,” Cerza said. “Buffalonians are so passionate about wings,” he said. “It's part of our soul. I don't think they'll ever give them up.”
There's only so much you can do about the supply of wings, he said. Each chicken, after all, only has two wings. That gave Cerza an idea.
“We've got to genetically change chickens to grow eight wings,” Cerza said. “That's what they've got to do in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Corridor.”