Operators who menu chicken wings had to deal with volatile market conditions in early 2013.  Wholesale prices rose significantly and there were rumors that a supply shortage was on tap. Yet a look back at first quarter point-of -sale (POS) data finds that it turned out to be a decent period for chicken wing sales, particularly for boneless versions, and margins for many operators were terrific.

“Overall chicken sales experienced healthy sales growth of about four percent during the first quarter of 2013, resulting in chicken wings being one of the top gainers in share of the food category sales in full serve restaurants during the first quarter of the year,” says Bill Pecoriello, c.e.o. of GuestMetrics, a company that aggregates and analyzes restaurant POS data.

The news could have been better. Because wing prices rose an average of nine percent in the period in comparison to the prior year, the actual number of chicken wing dishes sold declined by five percent.

More importantly, GuestMetrics data points to a dramatic shift in the chicken wing category: boneless wings are gaining in popularity.

“There is a fairly rapid shift taking place within the chicken wing category as boneless chicken wings take significant share of the category at the expense of bone-in chicken wings,” says GuestMetrics v.p. Peter Reidhead, “While boneless chicken wings’ share of sales for the overall chicken wing category was seven percent in 2011, it expanded to 13 percent in 2012, and was around 16 percent during the first quarter of 2013.” By GuestMetrics reckoning, while boneless chicken wings grew sales more than 65 percent in the first quarter of 2013 compared to the same period from the prior year, bone-in chicken wing sales contracted more than three percent. That nets out to an overall growth rate of four percent for the chicken wing category.

All the back-and-forth in the wing segment managed to produce expanded margins for operators.

“Interestingly, while chicken wing wholesale prices peaked in January of this year and have since come down about 40 percent, chicken wing pricing in our on-premise universe continued to rise materially during the first three months of 2013, suggesting pricing in on-premise is lagged by at least a couple months from bulk pricing,” says Pecoriello.

The company’s POS data show that average menu prices for chicken wings, which peaked in March, have returned to normal. Average chicken wing prices this year were $4.32 in January, $4.57 in February and $4.64 in March, retreating to $4.32 in April. Let’s hope it’s business as usual in the chicken wing segment going forward, and that the improved margins of late remain in place.