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The popularity of chicken wings is soaring across the country, fueled by an ever-increasing number of innovative sweet and spicy sauces developed by restaurateurs and manufacturers.
Statistics tell the tale. According to the National Chicken Council’s 2015 Wing Report, Americans were expected to have eaten 1.25 billion wings during Super Bowl XLIX alone. Another study conducted by online food-ordering firm, GrubHub Inc., disclosed that wings now rank as the top-selling takeout food ordered nationally, beating out traditional favorites like pizza and cheeseburgers for the year ended Sept. 29.
In response to growing consumer demand, the total number of operators offering wings increased nearly 6 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to Technomic Inc. in the research firm’s most recent Category Close-Up on wings.
The Technomic study also found the average number of wing sauce/flavor varieties offered by restaurants rose nearly 9 percent since 2009.
Operators are menuing a greater array of sauces and flavorings in response to consumers’ growing desire for choice, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based Technomic, noting, “Variety is the spice of life.”
The trend toward customization, especially among Millennials, is helping to drive the proliferation of sauces and flavors. “People get bored. They want to be entertained,” says Tom Scalese, chief operating officer of East Coast Wings & Grill, which features 75 different flavors of sauces and rubs. “They want an experience and not the same one all of the time.”
Consumers also are becoming far more adventurous when it comes to the dining out experience. Another Technomic study showed more than half of consumers said they prefer spicy foods. “This is the first time that figure has been over 50 percent,” Tristano says.
According to Datassential, the fastest-growing wing flavors by menu penetration over the past four years are Sriracha, Parmesan and Garlic Parmesan, all of which grew by 100 percent or more. Other top wing flavors are mango, which grew by 80 percent; soy, 80 percent; habanero, 78 percent; hickory, 67 percent; Thai, 52 percent; chipotle, 43 percent; chili sauce and chipotle BBQ, 40 percent each; and bourbon, 36 percent.
In response to customer demand, chain operators have been making the most of nontraditional wing flavors over the past year. For example, Buffalo Wild Wings debuted Smoldering Santa Fe Wings with guajillo, chipotle and jalapeño peppers as an LTO in January, Datassential says. Other chain rollouts over the past year include Godfather’s Pizza with its Sweet Chili Sauced Wings; Mazzio’s, Lemon Pepper Wings; Tilted Kilt, Raspberry Chipotle Wings; Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, Ghost Pepper Sings; and Bahama Breeze, Rum and Coke Wings.
However, while chefs and manufacturers are pulling out all of the stops in their quest for innovative flavors, Datassential points out that traditional favorites like hot, Buffalo, barbecue, bleu cheese and ranch are still central to wing menus, as are mild and medium-style hot sauces.
In the meantime, foodservice operators are shaping their menus to provide a variety of wing options for their guests. East Coast Wings & Grill, a 33-unit polished casual-dining chain based in Winston-Salem, N.C., offers guests an extensive variety of wing options in addition to other selections like burgers, salads, chili, soups, sandwiches, quesadillas, wraps and ribs.
Wings, however, still comprise the bulk of East Coast Wings’ sales — in the neighborhood of 25 percent of the menu mix, Scalese says.
Helping to fuel wing sales is the chain’s epic variety of 75 sauces and rubs, which includes Sriracha Ranch, Honey Mustard, Teri Ginger Garlic, Parmesan Peppercorn, Kentucky Bourbon and Bacon Ranch. East Coast Wings also has been testing new flavors as LTOs like Apple Barbecue and Chipotle Habanero.
At the same time, patrons can further customize their wings by selecting one of nine different heat index variations, including mild, medium, hot, extra hot and inferno. Scalese says the chain offers more than 600 flavor combinations of wings.
All of East Coast Wings’ sauces are proprietary, he continues. And while many of those sauces are prepared to the chain’s specifications by a manufacturer, others are made fresh in-house daily. To help ensure consistency among the made-from-scratch sauces, locations are routinely monitored by secret shoppers and a field team, which pays a visit to each unit every month. “It’s important to maintain flavor and consistency,” Scalese says.
East Coast Wing expects to break the 40-unit mark in 2015, and perhaps even have 60 units by the end of 2016.
Atomic Wings, a 35-unit fast-casual wing and boneless tender specialist based in Montclair, N.J., is growing steadily as well, according to founder and chief executive Adam Lippin. But while Lippin says the brand features a dozen proprietary wing sauces, he says he sees no reason to add sauces or flavors simply to bolster the chain’s menu selection.
“People want a certain amount of choice, and we give them that choice without being ridiculous about it,” he says.
Atomic Wings’ sauces include Thai Chili, Garlic Parmesan, Chipotle BBQ and Honey Mustard BBQ, as well as traditional mild, medium and hot sauces. Super hot sauces — Abusive, Nuclear and Suicidal — also are available, although Lippin says Medium ranks the most popular, followed by Hot and Mild.
While all of Atomic Wings’ sauces were developed in-house, most are now prepared for the chain by a manufacturer, with the exception of Abusive, Nuclear and Suicidal, which are customized in-house. In addition to offering wings in its restaurants, Atomic Wings also signed a licensing agreement with Fresh Direct. The Internet retailer merchandises one pound of branded Atomic Wings with Atomic Wings’ medium hot sauce for $8.99.
“I think the arrangement with Fresh Direct is a unique situation,” Lippin says. “And we’re getting the brand out there. It’s a very different market.”
Slim Chickens, a 17-unit fast-casual brand based in Fayetteville, Ark., also is spreading its wings, with plans to almost double its size in 2015. The Southern-flavored wing and tenders concept also offers wraps, salads, macaroni and cheese, fried sides like pickles and okra, and waffles topped with chicken tenders.
The chain, which was founded in 2003, offers a variety of wing sauces and is currently weighing the possibility of testing some LTOs. “We’re constantly looking at evolving the menu,” says director of operations Josh Austin. “We’re discussing adding some more flavors, but we don’t know which ones yet.”
Meanwhile, Slim Chickens offers seven flavors including four on the “Buffalo palette: mild, medium, hot and inferno. Also featured is Honey BBQ, Spicy BBQ, and Teriyaki.
Even though many regular customers tend to find their favorite flavors and stick with them over time, it is important for a restaurant to offer a variety of sauces, Austin says. “Some of our competitors only have one sauce,” he adds. “But our guests want to have a variety of flavors. I think that works best for us.”