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Hot Wings' Pain Now Felt By Restaurants, Too
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Hot Wings' Pain Now Felt By Restaurants, Too

Around the Nation

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The humble Buffalo chicken wing has grown enormously popular since its early days in upstate New York. Now, the wing is no longer just a cheap way to draw a crowd and sell more beer. It's an entire industry. But the wing is no longer cheap. Since becoming a hot commodity, wholesale prices on this former throwaway have risen.

As Rachel Ward of member station WXXI reports, that's making it harder for restaurants to keep them coming.

RACHEL WARD: The Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, is the home of the Original Buffalo Chicken Wing. It's often imitated but never duplicated, according to current owner Ivano Toscani, who inherited the chicken wing dynamo from the original owners, the Belissimos.

Mr. IVANO TOSCANI (Owner, Anchor Bar): I remember when wings, they used to throw them away. Teressa Belissimo used to use wings. They used to give it to her. She used to make soup. And when the famous night, back in 1964, when she received these wings, they were like she described them, too big and meaty to put in the stock pot.

WARD: So instead, Teresa dunked them in a deep fryer, and mixed them up with hot sauce and margarine. The result? An entire industry built around spicing up the lowliest part of the bird.

Ms. AUDREY CHOW: Buffalo wings. You hit Buffalo, you got to go for Buffalo wings.

WARD: That's Audrey Chow. Like many before her, she made a special stop at the Anchor Bar on a cross-country road trip. But it's not just Buffalo where you got to go for wings. It's also Miami, Detroit, and Seattle and everywhere in between. Wings have spread, and with that popularity comes a higher price, according to Toscani.

Mr. TOSCANI: You know, every time that there is Christmas, wings goes up. Super Bowl, wings goes up. But the problem is they never come down. You know, they go up and they stay there.

WARD: U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that chicken wings were wholesaling at 68 cents a pound at the turn of the millennium. But by last year, that price had more than doubled, to $1.47 a pound. And when you go through literally a ton a day, like the Anchor Bar does, that can really add up.

Mr. RICHARD LOBB (National Chicken Council): I'm Richard Lobb. I'm the spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, based in Washington, D.C.

WARD: Lobb knows a thing or two about chicken, and one of those things is that as the popularity of wings has risen, producers have scrambled to keep pace with demand. But while the fortunes of wings are rising, the reverse is happening for mild-tasting, low in fat chicken breasts. Prices have slumped for breasts, which used to be the most lucrative part of the bird.

Mr. LOBB: As pricey as chicken wings have been getting until quite recently, they are not enough to carry the bird, so to speak.

WARD: So once you've sold the wings, how do you move the rest of the bird? You make perhaps the first innovation in chicken wings since Teressa Belissimo fried up that initial batch. You give something more or less healthy the full Buffalo wing treatment.

Mr. LOBB: I think what you're seeing in the United States is a trend towards what they call boneless wings, which are actually pieces of breast meat that are breaded and battered and cooked in the same way as the wings, and served with the same sauce. So this appeals to people who don't like to have, you know, bones in their food, or something of that nature.

WARD: But this boneless business will not fly with the Anchor Bar owner Ivano Toscani.

Mr. TOSCANI: The wings has bone on it. I mean, you cant get away with it. The other people, they change, they do what they want to do, they want their own identity, they want to establish themself. God bless them. Do you what you have to do. Here at the Anchor Bar, we will continue to use chicken wings and chicken wings has bones to it, that's all.

WARD: The Anchor Bar is in no danger of closing, but less-storied establishments have been forced to close - all because of the high price of chicken wings.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Ward.

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