The Rub on Chicken Wings

In recent months, purveyors of chicken products have noted a steep rise in the cost of chicken. In particular, chicken wings. It is tempting to revisit Economics 101 and simply postulate that either the supply must be dwindling or the demand increasing. While this is true in some respect, a more complete answer to the mystery of hot wing pricing lies in a complex web of factors on both the supply side and the demand side.

From my discoveries through tours of various private and public research, the supply of chicken wings has more contingencies than a German board game and just about the same level of quantitative rigidity. Basically, there are many numbers and statistics of which to keep track, and all of them play a definitive role in the final price of a pound of chicken wings. For example, one explanation for the reduction in wings cuts is the number of chickens that are raised. This sounds simple until you dig a little deeper. At an increasing rate, larger chickens are prized over smaller ones, and many farmers selectively breed such chickens to produce even bigger chickens. This results in chickens that are fatter and fatter with each generation, often with that fat accumulating disproportionately in the breasts and thighs. Therefore, a greater net weight of chicken is produced. Unfortunately for wing lovers, there are still only two wings per chicken which don’t increase in size like other cuts. This effect is compounded by an interesting side effect of the increasing weight of the chickens: fat chickens are less willing to mate. This increases the demand for weight gain even more to make up for the apparent disappointment in chicken population growth. As intricate as it now seems to manage a flock of chickens, this is only one piece of the whole pie. I can see your eyes glazing over at the thought of analyzing any more topics in the fascinating world of chicken economics, so I’ll switch gears over to the demand side of the equation.

Much less founded on hard numbers and rules, the demand for any product is finicky as it ties into the latest cultural trends. If you’ve ever made a lunch run for the office, you know that nailing down people’s preferences is like herding cats and guessing how their preferences will change once they hear other orders is even more unpredictable. Our appetite shouldn’t change knowing what someone else is having, but the effect on our palate is almost greater than anything else. The public opinion can make or break a product, and it has certainly played a part in why chicken wings are so expensive.

Strangely enough, the recent swing in chicken prices doesn’t hold a candle to the rebranding and subsequent wave of price increases that lobster managed to create for itself in the late 1800s. The classy dish that we frequently associate with special occasions was once regarded as trash food that was hardly fit to serve to prisoners and servants. Lobsters were once so abundant that early settlers landing on the east coast of the U.S. couldn’t help but notice the massive quantities that washed up on shore, oftentimes in piles two feet high. The settlers were understandably turned off to this seafood which local Native Americans used only for bait and fertilizer. Many generations later, railroads had been established throughout the central cities of the U.S., and there was a large population that had grown up in the central states, rather than on the coast. To these unknowing customers, railroad companies began serving lobster at a premium. Not knowing the social history of lobster meat, as well as developments in cooking techniques, led the customers to regard lobster more highly. Demand increased. As a result, even though the supply had not significantly changed, the price of lobster dramatically increased much to the chagrin of east coasters.

Although not as extreme, the story of chicken wings is similar. In the 1980s, research had indicated that diets rich in fatty foods lead to health problems. Because of the public condemnation of fat, leaner chicken breasts were heavily marketed and celebrated for other benefits such as ease of preparation. Now, with chicken wings being associated with sporting finales like the Super Bowl or March Madness, and with more research supporting the consumption of certain kinds of fat, wings (and their prices) have come back in a big way. Considering this, in conjunction with the factors that affect the supply of chicken wings, it’s easy to see why the price of chicken wings tends to jump around so sporadically.

With the start of the NFL season this week, imagine drafting the perfect fantasy football team. To an outsider, picking the best players seems like a no brainer. As soon as you jump in, however, the subtleties of each individual’s stats combined with the near-infinite number of unforeseen circumstances shows you how much research is required to have a successful season. Similarly, knowing what wings will cost at the Super Bowl is tricky, to say the least, which is why my strategy for both chicken economics and fantasy football is the same: Hope for the best!

Andrew Koneman