In early spring, Patsy Vivares, co-owner of Houston eatery Sticky’s Chicken, drove to her local supplier to purchase her usual order: a forty-pound box of chicken wings. When she pulled up to Restaurant Depot, though, she was surprised to find that it had no wings to spare. Vivares tried another location; oddly, it was also out. She called her grocery vendor to see if he could find any wings, and hit a dead end there, too. “That was shocking, because we’ve owned a food truck since 2014, and we’ve never had a problem,” Vivares said. Her vendor explained that February’s deadly winter storm, the cold front that precipitated the failure of the Texas power grid, was partly to blame: freezing temperatures, buildings destroyed by busted pipes, and scant food and water supplies, among other factors, had caused more than a million chickens to die.
Even when Vivares and other wing-joint owners were able to find poultry supplies, they encountered a new problem: wholesale wing prices had surged astronomically. Jarrod Rector, the Houston-based owner of food truck STUFF’d Wings, which specializes in bone-in chicken wings loaded with the likes of seafood boudin and macaroni and cheese, says he’s seen the price per pound of wings skyrocket from $1.20 to around $4 just over the past few months. Other cuts of chicken, namely breasts, also saw spikes, but wings were notably worse off, given that they’re expensive parts and typically ordered by the bunch. In addition to the lofty costs, stir-crazy, newly vaccinated Texans flooding out of their homes to bars are creating a run on the limited supply. The salad days of ten-cent Wing Wednesdays might be ancient history for now. Requisite Fourth of July wing platters this weekend might even have to be swapped for, say, buffalo cauliflower spears.
The great chicken-wing shortage of 2021 did not happen overnight. When the COVID-19 pandemic upended food supply chains last year, chicken providers struggled to pivot as many of their restaurant clients had to shut down indefinitely. In spring 2020, poultry-packing plants either operated at limited capacity or shuttered for weeks due to labor shortages and virus outbreaks. Craig Coufal, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension poultry specialist, recently noted in a report that birds that were raised during the pandemic tended to be grown a little smaller, for grocery stores instead of restaurants. (Birds intended for the likes of chicken strips, nuggets, and wings are typically grown bigger than their grocery-store counterparts.) Meanwhile, restaurants and bars that managed to weather the pandemic and operated to go saw a relative uptick in chicken-wing orders in 2020—since wings keep so well. Wingstop, which has nearly 1,300 locations in the U.S. and is headquartered in the Dallas area, saw sales spike 32 percent.
Heading into 2021, production of ready-to-cook broiler chickens (those raised for meat) was still depressed, with the number of pounds produced down 8.7 percent in January over the same month in 2020, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of course, the winter storm did Texas—the fifth-largest producer of broiler chickens, according to Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council—no favors, either. Corn and soybean plants used for chicken feed this year withered and died in February, and feed continues to be expensive. Hundreds of thousands of chicks were euthanized because they couldn’t be shipped during treacherous road conditions in the February freeze, too, as the Wall Street Journal reports. “Chicken producers are doing everything they can to overcome the devastating impact of Mother Nature when she inflicted the once-in-a-lifetime winter storm on Texas and nearby states—major chicken-producing regions,” Super wrote over email. “Keep in mind, too, that this weather event took place in February, right after the biggest event of the year for wings: the Super Bowl.”
The supply chain still hasn’t yet fully caught up to recent demand, especially with thousands of restaurants and bars swinging their doors back open. But in order to make popular barstool snacks such as chicken biscuits and wings, restaurants need breasts and wings, respectively—and not, say, a cut favored for heavier meals, like thighs. “Demand has been through the roof,” wrote Super, adding: “and with restaurants opening back up as restrictions begin to lift, chicken processors have had to adjust their product lines and supply chains to get back to a more ‘normal’ retail vs. food-service mix.”
To make ends meet, STUFF’d recently hiked its prices from $10.75 for a ten-piece order of wings to $13.25. And Sticky’s is now charging roughly $2 each for its wings (up from $1.30), which come in flavors including smoked shallot and honey sriracha, at both the food truck and brick-and-mortar location in Houston’s Lower Heights. “It’s not like we want to charge that much,” said Vivares. “It’s just we don’t really have a choice, or else we won’t be able to survive.”
Scrappy local restaurant owners aren’t the only ones having a hard time now that wings have become a coveted rarity instead of an inexpensive bar standard. Wingstop has launched an all-new online menu, dubbed “Thighstop,” which uses the meatier and less expensive cut with familiar seasonings. Pluckers, the Austin-based wing chain, temporarily raised its prices to reflect what it’s calling “the highest wing prices in history.”
It’s unclear how long chicken prices will remain sky-high, but Super says that the tight market should ease as production catches back up to a normal pace post-pandemic. Until then, restaurants and bars known for their wings will have to make do with what they can find. Both Rector and Vivares say that the higher price points for their restaurants’ respective wings have yet to cause customers to chicken out of buying them altogether, which might be due to a cultural acceptance that easing back into life post-pandemic is proving to be a little more expensive than we imagined.
Maybe thighs will take off until prices get back to normal, but some are skeptical they’ll become a bar standard the way wings have been for decades. Recently, Rector went to a local restaurant and brewhouse. It was out of chicken wings, but a server told him the joint could serve up thighs as an alternative, so he ordered them with lemon-pepper seasoning. But he was disappointed. He didn’t find “this big ol’ piece of meat” as appetizing, he said. “Substituting thighs for chicken wings just doesn’t seem right. And I don’t really think the market, as far as customers, are going to buy into that.”