Boneless chicken wings: It’s not a lie if you believe it

How a fried ball of breast meat became the “boneless wing.”

Chicken wings are to the Super Bowl as turkey is to Thanksgiving. And this weekend, Americans are expected to eat 1.35 billion of them, according to the National Chicken Council, a poultry trade association. That’s even more than we ate last year.

Why? What is it about chicken wings that we love so much? Well, they’re cheap. Plus, they’re easy to handle. Not too fatty. And easy to fry up. Good for groups, too—and bars looking to make more bucks on a booze value-add.

The Chicken Council traces wings’ rise in popularity back to the 1980s. That’s when domestic chicken consumption surpassed pork. (“The Other White Meat” ad campaign was the pork industry’s response.) It was a decade when our appetites were being radically reshaped by a new paradigm in nutrition—a belief that white meat was healthier than fattier dark meat—and our resulting demand for boneless, skinless breast meat has been a profit center for the poultry industry ever since.

Broilers are now genetically engineered to be whiter and meatier and producers selectively breed what some people have referred to as “plofkip” with bigger breasts. (If you’re “plofkip”-curious, go here.)

Processing all that white meat creates plenty of cheap animal byproduct. And that’s good for the wing business. According to Bloomberg, in the past decade, Buffalo Wild Wings locations have tripled and Wingstop locations have doubled. Meanwhile, since 2014, the number of restaurants with the word “wings” in their name has grown by 18 percent.

But there’s gotta be a limit. First, to our sanity. (Remember the rumor about multi-winged mutant chickens?) And second, to actual chicken wing production.

No matter how pumped a chicken gets, it still has only two wings—meatiness and size notwithstanding.
Between all the chains, and grocery stores, and even pizzerias getting in on the action, the demand for chicken wings has run amok, says Russ Whitman, a poultry analyst at business publisher Urner Barry, which analyzes commodities. And tornadic demand, of course, drives prices up. Indeed, on Super Bowl Sunday in 2015, chicken wings were selling at wholesale for $1.91 a pound, and would stay right around there for four more months.  

Nearly $2 a pound cost wing retailers too much. But around that same time, producers started to trend toward growing bigger, meatier “jumbo” chickens. Since those “jumbo” wings were, for a moment, cheaper and more readily available, wing houses got on board. But here was the flaw: No matter how pumped a chicken gets, it still has only two wings—meatiness and size notwithstanding.

Moral? Bigger wings didn’t make for more wings in the market. And this past September, as reports of a chicken wing shortage abounded, the jumbo wing hit a record high of $2.16 a pound. At the same time that there weren’t enough wings to go around, the industry was oversupplied with boneless, skinless white meat—so much boneless, skinless white meat that the price for it hit an all-time low. Even today, it’s trading at around $1.03 a pound.

The idea that the most profitable part of a chicken would go for half as much as a chicken wing “was kind of crazy,” Whitman says.

So how does the industry solve this see-saw of supply and demand? How do you drive up demand for breast meat, when wings are all the rage? Maybe just label that breast meat a “wing.” No, make that a boneless wing.

But here’s the trouble. Unlike with bigger birds—turkeys, for instance—it’s nearly impossible, mechanically, for processors to debone a real chicken wing.

“I mean, no, it’s not a wing at all,” Whitman says. “It’s white meat, it’s breast meat. Is it fair? I don’t know what the rules are. It’s misleading.

All the boneless wing deals in the world won’t make a dent on supply.
“What they do is they take a piece of breast meat, and they essentially strip it down, cut it into five three-inch long pieces, and coat it with buffalo sauce, and throw it in a fryer,” Whitman says. “There’s your boneless wing.”

Truth in advertising be damned.

In this time of high-flying wing prices, “boneless” branding is emerging as a viable solution for processors desperate to push their record-low-priced white meat, and for retailers who can’t afford the real (“traditional”) thing. Take, for example, Buffalo Wild Wings. Whitman notes the chain replaced its half-price-Tuesday deals with a boneless promotion—a move that cut costs, boosted earnings, and temporarily staved off acquisition. (The chain’s sales had slumped before the boneless bump.)

Now, “the first question they ask you is, ‘would you like boneless wings, or our traditional?’” Whitman says.

Despite this marketing shift—and that’s what it is, rather than a shift in production—Whitman’s not seeing any change in breast meat prices. All the boneless wing deals in the world won’t make a dent on supply. What really drives up prices, he says, are seasonal demands for white meat, like healthy eating resolutions in January, or summer cookouts.

Despite this marketing push to get us to accept even more meat arbitrage, it doesn’t look like boneless wings are here to stay. Traditional wings still account for 64 percent of all wings served at restaurants, and boneless orders actually fell this year, according to the National Chicken Council. The Wing Bowl, Philadelphia’s famed championship event for wing eaters, has not gone boneless.

After all, going boneless is just a way for retailers to cut costs. And if demand ever subsides, and the prices return to normal, Whitman expects a pivot back to “traditional” wing deals.

In other words, to you, the consumer, the boneless wing is a fad. To an economist, it’s a market correction.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.