High-Flying Wings: Saucing and Selling a Top Side Dish

6 mins read

To your average barnyard chicken, wings are worthless—she’s got two of them, but, bless her heart, the poor critter still can’t fly. For hungry humans, though, wings make for a delightful delicacy—meaty, succulent and just plain finger-lickin’ good. They’re hotter than ever these days, and pizzerias around the country have responded to the ever-growing demand for chicken wings slathered in sauces that run the gamut from sweet to triple-atomic. After all, variety is the spice of life, and these juicy little appendages fit the bill with a plethora of options in varying degrees of heat (mild, hot or inferno), a range of sauce flavors (Buffalo, teriyaki, barbecue, garlic parmesan, mango habanera or lemon pepper) and cooking methods (broiled, fried or barbecued). Most of the top 500 pizza chains now offer hot wings on their menus. And eating wings has become a fun-food phenomenon—few football fans would throw a Super Bowl party without a couple of pizzas and a bucket of wings.

Mark’s Pizzeria (markspizzeria.com), a chain headquartered in Fairport, New York—the very heart of Buffalo wing country—has been serving wings since the first store opened in 1985. “We see a real demand. If you don’t have wings up here, you’re not a pizzeria,” says owner Mark Crane. “If somebody has a pizzeria and doesn’t sell wings, they need to do it right away.” In fact, wings—available in bundles of up to 100 in a single pack—account for 25 percent of Mark’s Pizzeria’s sales.

Indeed, despite price fluctuations, chicken wings are causing quite a flap in the restaurant business. “Bone-in wings continue to expand their presence, especially at certain times of the year, such as around the Super Bowl,” says Worth Sparkman, manager of public relations at Tyson Foods in Springdale, Arkansas. “When demand spikes, there are not enough wings to go around sometimes, and this, of course, can drive up the price due to limited supply. Also, more quick-serve chains have added wings to their menus, so more operations are buying wings than ever before.”

The Wonderful World of Wings

Buffalo hot wings have been sold since 1964, when Teressa Bellissimo, owner of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, tossed some chicken wings into the fryer, whipped together a few ingredients—including cayenne pepper—to create what’s now known as Buffalo wing sauce, and added celery and blue cheese dressing on the side. Chickens around the country would have shuddered if they’d known what was coming next—history had been made, although only Buffalonians appreciated it at the time.

By the mid-1980s, the popularity of Buffalo wings had begun to spread. In 1994, Joey Todaro III, a member of the family that operated the highly successful Buffalo-based La Nova Pizzeria (lanova.com), realized that pizza and wings went together like rock-and-roll. “We served hot wings in our pizzeria, and they were so successful that I got the idea to market them to other pizzerias,” Todaro says. “I booked a booth at a convention and showed operators that pizza and hot wings were a natural fit.”

With his La Nova Wings distribution company, Todaro says he spread the gospel of hot wings and sauces to independent pizzerias in Buffalo—and, ultimately, throughout the U.S. and internationally. “Somebody else might have come up with it, but I made it easy for pizzerias to incorporate wings on their menus,” Todaro says. Wings, for all their uselessness to their original owners, now constitute the most expensive part of the chicken, he adds.

It was also in 1994 that executives at Domino’s (dominos.com) decided a chicken-wing experiment in a Buffalo store proved that customers were willing to spend a few extra bucks to buy wings with their pizza. Thanks to massive television advertising during NFL football games, the wings concept took flight nationally. “It was something people really enjoyed, and there was a market that grew exponentially during the mid-1990s,” says Diane Barrentine, owner of six Domino’s franchises in Mississippi. “Independent chains and other quick-service restaurants were already including wings on the menu or as an appetizer.”

Domino’s concluded that, if wings were to sell successfully nationwide, they needed to be cooked with existing pizza ovens at roughly the same time and temperature, Barrentine recalls. Wings now account for 20 percent of all sales in Barrentine’s stores, and most customers take advantage of coupons to have pizza-and-wings combos delivered to their doors. After preparing them with Cattleman’s sauces in the early days, Barrentine says Domino’s has since developed its own brand of sauces to top the precooked wings distributed to its franchisees.

Secret’s in the Sauce

Independent pizzeria operators say that perfecting a special sauce and promoting wings in combination with pizza are the keys to success. “Before you offer wings on the menu, first develop a sauce that is yours,” says Florence Bertolucci, co-owner, along with David Gray, of Josie’s Pizza (josiespizza.com) in Orlando, Florida. “We have done that and have a very loyal following.”

Although Josie’s Pizza is located near major tourist hotspots—five miles from Universal Studios and 12 miles from Disney World—local residents make up 99 percent of its business, Bertolucci says. Josie’s generates hundreds of wing orders per week in the 127-seat pizzeria, and wing sales account for 45 percent of revenue, Bertolucci says. But the profit margin has been affected by rising food costs and stiff competition. “The cost of wings has almost doubled since last spring, and we haven’t raised our prices in three years,” she notes. “But the competition hasn’t either.”

However, Josie’s stands apart from local competition with the promise of a sauce that’s “as close to the original Buffalo wing sauce … as you are going to get,” according to the pizzeria’s website.

If the secret to authentic wings is in the sauce, it’s not surprising that national companies are producing numerous Buffalo sauces, many based on the original cayenne pepper sauce. Frank’s Red Hot, which now produces a variety of Buffalo sauce flavors, is said to be the brand of pepper sauce used in Bellissimo’s original recipe. Today the Original Anchor Bar Buffalo Sauce can be purchased through Anchor Bar’s website, and other major companies—such as Louisiana Hot Sauce, Texas Pete, Jim Beam and even Budweiser—have gotten into the competition. The wings craze has also spawned regional and specialty companies peddling sauces in a rainbow of flavors, including Alliger’s House of Wings, Wing It and Wing Time.

One such company, Buffalo Gill’s of Baltimore, Maryland, has a long history of pairing wings and pizza. Owner Paul Gill once owned a chain of pizzerias on the East Coast. His technique of wing preparation and development of sauces evolved over time into a business that today markets 21 sauce flavors throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, specializing in sales to independent pizzerias. “These sauces are all my own,” Gill says. “A lot of businesses have based their wings on these flavors and have been very successful.”

Gill is as much a teacher as a salesman, conducting seminars on the proper preparation of wings at the National Pizza and Ice Cream Show (NAPICS) and providing a tutorial on his website. “If someone needs to know how to cook wings, I might spend all day with them,” Gill says.

Even Tabasco jumped into the fray last March with its own Buffalo sauce. “We did not have a classic, thicker sauce specially formulated to be the right consistency and heat level that would add the unmistakable Buffalo flavor to a wide variety of foods, including wings, sandwiches, burgers and more,” says Paul McIlhenny, president and CEO of the McIlhenny Company, which produces Tabasco in Avery Island, Louisiana.

McIlhenny served as the “chief taste tester” for the company’s new Buffalo Style Hot Sauce—made with red cayenne pepper, salt, water, distilled vinegar and garlic—during trials. “The thick and balanced sauce has just the right amount of heat for a classic Buffalo sauce flavor,” says Charlie Cheng, research and development director for McIlhenny Company. Actually, Tabasco’s Buffalo hot sauce isn’t that hot, rating 300-700 on the Scoville Heat Unit Scale. The original Tabasco sauce is rated 2500-5000.

A Bone to Pick

In some consumers’ minds, the only problem with wings is the bone. Hence, so-called “boneless wings,” made with breast meat, have won over many customers. “Boneless wings offer the same flavor people love in bone-in wings, like Buffalo or teriyaki, but appeal to people who prefer not to eat the chicken off the bone,” Sparkman says. “In fact, we’ve found that operations which menu both boneless wings and bone-in wings can increase total wing sales by as much as 30 percent over operations that only offer bone-in wings.”

In other words, consumers’ yen for hen seems to have no end. At Goode & Fresh Pizza Bakery (pizzabaker.com) in Glenview, Illinois, Broaster chicken accounts for 20 percent of owner Jay Phillip’s overall business. Meanwhile, Pizza King in Winamac, Indiana, has been selling Broaster chicken since owner Greg Zehner bought the store 13 years ago. Today, Zehner, employing social marketing techniques to promote specials to smartphone users, says chicken accounts for 30 percent of his overall revenue.

Chicken wings have certainly earned a secure spot on pizzeria menus, but what will be the breakthrough delicacy of the future? Could it be boneless ribs, such as those recently introduced by Domino’s in the U.K.?  Only time will tell, but one thing’s for sure: Pizzeria operators will keep experimenting and looking for the next big moneymaking innovation. After all, you can’t run your business on a wing and a prayer.

This article was originally published in the April 2012 issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine. It has been edited slightly for reposting on National Chicken Wing Day.