In conversations about fast casual poultry sensations, chicken sandwiches tend to steal the spotlight (and understandably so). But in the year since the pandemic started, a different part of the chicken has stealthily become a key player in restaurant chains’ takeout and delivery models: the humble chicken wing.
You might remember last year’s rollout of Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings, the Chuck E. Cheese delivery-only spin-off that operates out of the entertainment chain’s kitchens with a menu that focuses heavily on chicken wings with different sauces and flavor rubs. Applebee’s applied the same strategy, launching a streamlined version of its menu as “Neighborhood Wings” via Grubhub. Shortly thereafter, the parent company of Chili’s and Maggiano’s announced It’s Just Wings, a virtual restaurant concept that delivers what it promises, exclusively through DoorDash. Then Domino’s chose to overhaul its existing chicken wing offerings, debuting an exciting new menu of unique flavor combinations like Mango Habanero wings, to varying degrees of success. Red Robin just announced The Wing Dept., a delivery-only brand (or “non-burger virtual concept”) that is in the process of rolling out nationwide. On and on and on into our saucy future we go.
It’s easy to see why these companies are betting big on wings: they’re cheap to produce in bulk and can easily be sold in bulk (why order a dozen wings when you can order two dozen?). They can be made in small kitchens, because they don’t require a lot of prep space or deep fryer real estate. They travel well as a delivery food, staying hot in transit thanks to the internal heat provided by the chicken bones. They aren’t fussy inside their boxes—if they get jostled, it’s a lot less catastrophic than what can happen to a pizza if the delivery vehicle hits a sharp turn. And they don’t require a lot of creative vision or expertise to pull off. As long as they’re drenched in a passable sauce, wings are simply hard to mess up. So, yes, chicken wings are emblematic of the 2020 dining landscape, and for reasons that make sense.
But these concepts wouldn’t succeed without customers. As wing production ramped up across the country, our consumption of wings apparently rose alongside it: As pointed out by Restaurant Business (and covered here yesterday), “Pizza and chicken chains were the clear winners” in 2020.
Have you ordered wings for delivery from a ghost kitchen this year? I haven’t. I love seeing wings on a restaurant menu when dining in, but it has never once occurred to me to order them to my home. They’re just not my takeaway food. We all have our things.
But beyond that, these virtual wing concepts don’t mirror my personal behavior as a consumer. When I think about what I want for dinner tonight, I start with the place in mind: it’s “Should we order In-On Thai tonight?” rather than, “When we order food tonight, which service should help us decide where to order it from?” This might make me old, or a Luddite, or strikingly decisive, or simply someone who doesn’t like wings enough to wait 45 minutes to receive them. I don’t know.
But what I want to know is, who is this for? (A whole lot of people, I’m sure!) What’s your wing intake? Is ordering wings via a delivery app a regular occurrence in your household? If so, what do you like best about them? Who the hell is ordering all these damn chicken wings?