Wait — boneless wings are cheaper than the real thing?

boneless chicken wingsThey're ubiquitous these days at casual restaurants of all stripes: so-called boneless chicken wings. They've popped up on menus at Wendy's, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chili's and countless other fast-food and casual sit-down restaurants. The name is kind of a misnomer, as anyone who's ever popped one of these bites knows; they're more like grown-up chicken nuggets, a battered or breaded chunk of breast meat tossed in sauce.

While wing die-hards may stick up their noses, the boneless variety do have a few advantages; namely, you can eat them with a fork and they don't require a trip to the restroom afterward to check for Braveheart-style smears of sauce across your face. But we're not here today to debate the merits of tradition vs. boneless wings (although if you'd like to, by all means have at it in the comments section). Rather, we're going to explore the weird quirks of chickonomics that make these newfangled wings considerably cheaper to produce than the real thing.Everyone thinks of wings as cheap bar food that generally accompanies a draught or a pitcher. Chicken breast, on the other hand, is considered more refined, knife-and-fork fare that costs more. This recession has turned that perception upside down.

This article from the New York Times explains the phenomenon in detail. The short version: Restaurants order an awful lot of chicken breasts, so when Americans cut back on eating out to save money as the economy worsened, those orders dried up and poultry processors were left with warehouses full of surplus breasts. Wings, on the other hand, had nowhere to fall. They'd always been value-priced, and since diners considered them an affordable indulgence, we continued to eat them by the basket, bucket and platter.

In an odd supply-and-demand-generated twist, the Times reports that wings at the wholesale level now cost almost 30 cents a pound more than breasts. (You generally won't notice this at the supermarket, since grocers have managed to keep breast prices high. The silver lining, though, is more are regularly running sales on chicken breasts to get customers in the door.) A year ago, wings were around 20 cents cheaper than breasts; in mid-2008, wings were nearly 60 cents cheaper.

As a result, many wing-centric eateries have had to raise prices or contend with reduced profits, or both. Bars that used to offer wings for a quarter or similar promotions now find that they can't afford to offer those kinds of deals anymore. More restaurant owners have turned to peddling boneless wings as a lower-cost alternative.

So the next time you sit down to watch a football game with a plate of spicy Buffalo or barbecue wings, ponder the irony that your casual snack is now one of the most sought-after parts of the bird.
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