In Autumn 2019, several friends gathered in my apartment for an impromptu brunch featuring Popeye’s lauded (and, dare I say, legendary) chicken sandwich. It was a welcomely fowl sacrifice to the zeitgeist, worth every single one of its 690 calories delivered via the buttery bun and shatteringly crunchy clefts and ridges that encased a juicy slab of white meat.
As with many things in 2019, I took this Popeye’s brunch for granted: this greasy gallic feast would be one of the last times I’d crowd my apartment with people before the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on such activities. That wasn’t the only reason for its significance, though. It would mark one of the last times I’d eat a fast food chicken sandwich free of the knowledge that my purchase would (probably) contribute to an eventual crisis regarding yet another of my beloved food items: chicken wings. These fast food sandwiches were a hit, so it was only a matter of time before large chains went beyond the white meat sandwich and to go all out in a game of chicken.
Especially with wings.
For some weeks now, there’s been no shortage of official notices regarding a sudden and apparently nonsensical surge in the price of wings.
You may have noticed that your local spot has ratched up the prices on the saucy avian delicacy, or (gasp!) done away with wing specials all together. “I've been in charge of purchasing food for restaurants since 1992, so for a really long time,” observed chef Andy Husbands of The Smoke Shop BBQ, a Boston-based eatery with locations in Harvard Square, Seaport, Kendall Square, and Assembly Row. “I have never seen anything like this, never.”
There are a few reasons why this may be going on. As Vox’s Casey Taylor mapped out, the chicken wing shortage could be chalked up to delivery pressures. For over 12 months, Americans who worked non-essential jobs were largely stuck at home. But while dining out took a dip, delivery ticked ever upwards. And what do people like getting delivered?
Americans ordered a lot of wings last year, and it makes sense — They’re a first ballot Fun Food to Eat Hall of Famer! It would be weird if (vegetarianism notwithstanding) you went through that hellacious year without seeking comfort in the often spicy, sometimes smoky, occasionally sweet arms (er, wings) of our good pal and confidante, Chicken. But it would also be weird if large corporations, operating in a country whose entire existence is predicated on the insatiable need to make a quick buck, refused to get in on a slice of the wing game. This is America, damn it, so that’s exactly what the large chains did: fresh off the chicken sandwich wars, they doubled down on poultry, amping up their own wing offerings.
The heightened demand drove up the price for wings, and chicken is getting expensive enough that only large chains can afford to bring it to you at prices you’re used to. For fast food chains, it’s paying off — the Wall Street Journal reported a 33% increase in wings sold in the “12 months ended in March compared with the same year-earlier period.”
Husbands, like many other restaurateurs, felt this first hand — the price of wings at Smoke Shop have doubled since this time last year. When I asked him to describe the shortage from his point of view, he had an eye towards the logistics. Feed prices are going up, which in turn drives up the price of the chicken itself: the farmer passes off that cost to the processing plant, who in turn does the same to the distributor. The distributor has to hike the prices it charges the bar, and, well, you see where this is going.
Labor is a factor, too. “Everybody wants good people. Everybody wants everybody to make more money and a living wage, and I fully agree to that,” explained Husbands. “But we have to understand that when we want that, things are going to cost more.” Couple this with the fact that the US job market is still in a very funky position: job openings are steadily increasing but job applications are not. But he also is quick to acknowledge that some of this is also COVID’s fault. New restrictions and protocols have slowed everything down while transportation prices only increase. That slowing down is precipitating scarcity, and scarcity, as Chef Husbands puts it, “costs money.”
In a way, the shortage is like a culinary optical illusion; it’s not like there was a chicken rapture that left us all wingless. So, it may help to think of it like this: restaurants and grocery stores are in a standoff. When the pandemic first hit, restaurants weren’t grabbing cases of wings because there were far fewer patrons to eat them. For example, Husbands told me that his purveyor brought in 500 cases of wings (each case is 40 pounds) for restaurants that wanted them. They were all distributed in two days. But look at a similar situation from this time last year — Husbands described a world in which it took a month to distribute 200 cases.
While restaurants weren’t buying wings, grocery stores were. And we the consumers were buying from the stores. It’s a shock, or at least it is for Pat Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri. See, the pandemic delivered a shocking surprise in agricultural circles: “We expected a significant drop in overall meat consumption in this country, at least for any given set of prices,” said Westoff. “And instead, quite to our surprise, in 2020 total meat consumption in the U.S. actually increased relative to the year before, with prices higher.”
"I have never seen anything like this, never."Chef Andy Husbands of The Smoke Shop BBQ
That’s weird, given the decrease in employment and a harsh economic recession. However, Westoff believes it comes down to how spending changed during the pandemic. Many people who were working from home cut out costs of commuting, lunching at work, “going out,” and generally partaking in hood-rat stuff with their friends. Despite a floundering economy, many people had more cash on hand thanks to things like a pause on student loan debt and (paltry) “stimulus checks.”
Westoff theorizes that this translated to people being able to afford more stuff, including meat. That kind of checks out; home cooks did have a bit of a moment in 2020. Plus, argues Husbands, meat can stretch out for a longer time. “What is easiest to cook at home? And then, what lasts longer at home? What would you eat on a second or third day?” Husbands posed. “All of those [answers] are meat.” Let’s be real — you cook a roast on a Sunday and you’ll be feasting on that till midweek. Contrast to something like fresh produce or seafood, which some would argue would need to be prepared and consumed not long after you get it.
Now, things are reopening. I live in Brooklyn, and New York is lifting mandates and aiming for a return to total sociability by early July. Massachusetts is lifting restrictions on May 29. And dining establishments, in the hopes of being ready for these ravenous souls, have gone to war with grocery stores. Restaurants were sidelined for much of the 2020 season, but now they’re getting back on the floor and competing for our stomachs, and are effectively trying to reenter a chicken wing market that grocers had on lock. It’ll take a minute for all this to stabilize, and I’m bullish on this being a short term problem. But consider this chicken situation another odd example of what a pandemic can do to the economy. You’d do well not to take your flats for granted next time.