Chicken wing market stages a huge comeback

Wholesale wing prices are on track to post the second-highest annual average ever in 2024.

Chicken Wings On Plate
WITTY | BigStock.com

Unique economic forces at play early in the COVID pandemic – with consumers sheltering at home frequently but eager to treat themselves with tasty meals that could be delivered or accessed via take-out with relative ease – fueled a historic boom in the wing market. Spot wholesale prices for whole wings averaged $2.82 per pound in 2021 according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, shattering the previous record from 2017 by more than $0.85.

With those higher costs inevitably getting passed along to consumers and consumption patterns around delivery and take-out dining finally normalizing, it led to an eventual bust. Last year, the wing market posted its lowest annual average since 2011; however, market conditions have been much brighter so far this year.

Popularity tested

Since the advent of the “buffalo wing” decades ago and outgrowth of that marketing concept to include numerous other flavors and seasonings, wings have developed a reputation for being one of the more popular food items among U.S. consumers. They are a cornerstone product for a broad swath of the restaurant industry’s fast-casual segment and inextricably linked to major sporting events, the Super Bowl most notably.

This rich history created a sense that wings are “stubbornly popular,” implying that consumers might not be sensitive to even significant price increase in the category. That theory was put to the test in 2021 and immediately after when consumers started feeling the heat from higher price levels.

It was common then to find raw, uncooked whole wings exceeding $4 and even $5 per pound on a retail basis. For cooked, prepared, and seasoned wings in restaurants, it was common to find retail-equivalent prices topping $10 per pound. There were a handful of restaurants who went as far as attaching the “market price” label to wings on their menus, something typically associated with premium seafood products and steak cuts. As it turns out, consumers aren’t terribly fond of wings at those price points.

Hitting the reset button

It was a mania that eventually culminated with major pushback from consumers and imploding demand. For a brief stretch in late-2022 and early-2023, and again last May and June, wholesale spot prices for whole wings traded below $1 per pound. As cost pressures eased on grocery stores and restaurants, consumers started seeing better and better deals, generating higher sales in this category and boosting product movement.

With demand improving noticeably and compounding the bullish effects of stagnant supplies, spot wholesale prices for whole wings climbed all the way back to a local peak of $2.30 per pound in mid-April of this year. Prices have been easing back at a very gradual pace since then.

Frozen wing stocks in the U.S. totaled just 51 million pounds as of the end of March, well below the 63 million pounds on hand a year earlier and comfortably short of the 5-year (19-23) average for March of 57 million pounds. Depressed cold storage stocks are typically found alongside a strong wing market, and 2024 is looking like it will feature the highest price ever for wings outside of 2021. 

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