Spicy treats soar in sales A WING FLING

March 15, 1995|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

Wings have really taken off at America's fast-food outlets. Spicy chicken wings, that is, those hot and succulent morsels of meat and sauce that first teased the taste buds of patrons of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., some 30 years ago, and today are flying out of fast-food, pizza and carryout places faster than you can say "hot stuff."

At Pizza Hut, where the chain's Buffalo wings were introduced only on Feb. 1, about 2.4 million of the succulent little snacks fly out of the ovens every day. "It's a tremendous market," said Pizza Hut spokesman Chris Romoser.

Even in the testing phase, its Buffalo wings "did phenomenonally well," said Domino's spokesman spokesman Tim McIntyre. By August of last year, "We said, let's stop the tests, line up suppliers and get these things in our stores," he said. Domino's wings went nationwide last October. "Now one out of every five pizza orders has an order of wings attached to it," he said.

The pizza chain's experiences echo that of KFC Corp. which introduced its spicy "Hot Wings" in Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in 1990. "They were so popular that three weeks later, we had to pull the advertising, because we were completely out of supply," said Jean Litterst, KFC manager of public affairs."

For those who are envisioning a large, shaggy beast lifting off into the sunset (a vision Domino's exploits in its television ads), "Buffalo wings" are the larger joints of a chicken wing, deep-fried or oven-baked (sometimes marinated first), doused with a spicy barbecue-style sauce and served, traditionally, with blue cheese dressing and celery sticks. Those items, legend has it, were all that was on hand one night sometime in the 1960s when patrons of that Buffalo nightspot demanded a snack. There are some variations -- some places serve the wings with ranch dressing, for instance, or with the sauce on the side -- but generally speaking, hot wings are all descendants of the famous Buffalo treat.

And today, according to the National Broiler Council, Buffalo-type chicken wings are an $800 million-a-year business, with the fast-food and carryout restaurants representing perhaps half of that. Consumers spend $1 billion a year on wings, the council said.

What it it about wings that have allowed them to take off with Americans' hearts and wallets? For many people, especially in parts of the country far from upstate New York, wings are something new, an alternative to french fries or onion rings. They're also part of a trend to spicier foods, as consumers become more aware of spicier ethnic cuisines and come to prefer them to blander diets. And they're fun. "They're hot, gooey, informal fun," said Mr. McIntyre. "They're a big, sloppy fun thing to eat."

"Spicy foods are becoming more prevalent and finger foods in general are more popular, especially among younger consumers," said Steve Clark, senior vice president and general manager for the Atlanta-based Church's chicken restaurant chain.

"It fits the requisite for fast food," said Wendy Webster, spokesman for the National Restaurant Association, based in Washington. "It's certainly portable, and it's fun food."

The association's menu analysis for 1993, the most recent available in the series conducted every five years, shows that in restaurants that serve appetizers, chicken appetizers (including Buffalo wings) increased 10 percentage points in availability over 1987.

In the fast-food industry, Ms. Webster said, wings tend to be used as promotional items or "extra value" items. When the economy went into recession in 1990, the fast-food restaurants all got into extra value, adding menu items or packaging meals or enlarging portions, to convince consumers they were getting more for their money. "And five years later, they're still doing it," she said.

Consumer demand and competition are the driving forces behind the wing fling.

"Fast food is an incredibly competitive segment of the industry," Ms. Webster said. "They're all out to get the same customer. It's like the airline industry. If one airline does something, all the others have to do it. If one restaurant in the pizza segment [serves wings], they all have to do it."

A hit though the wings are, consumers who are watching their waistlines might want to try a dish that packs less of a caloric wallop.

"A six-piece order of chicken wings is worse then eating a Big Mac," said Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist for the consumer watchdog agency the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She estimated the six wings at 621 calories, compared with the Big Mac's 500. "If you dip them in just 2 tablespoons of blue cheese dressing, it's equal to two orders of McDonald's super-sized fries." And that equals a whopping three-quarters of an entire day's allotment of fat.

The wing is the fattiest part of the chicken -- fattier even than the thigh -- and for Buffalo wings, the skin is left on. "The fat's in the wings, and you're dipping them in something fatty," Ms. Hurley said.

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