The longest lines at the National Buffalo Wing Festival throughout Sunday afternoon were consistently for Wing's Army, a franchise from Mexico.
"They're pretty great – very sweet and savory," Rob Harmon said of the Happy Oyster wings, before giving his stamp of approval to the Hot Barbecue wings, too. "Very tangy and spicy, perfect for a hot barbecue."
The military-themed Wing's Army, with employees dressed in army fatigues with ammo belts around the women's waists, came the farthest distance to be at the 16th annual festival. But out-of-state businesses from as far away as Portland and Surprise, Ariz., drew hefty crowds at Coca-Cola Field. So, too, did local wing businesses, especially ones that have recently opened or rebranded themselves.
After the sun broke through in the early afternoon, thousands were on hand to sample the wings, from sweet to heated, which sold for $1 apiece.
The two-day festival's eating competitions were capped off Sunday by Joey Chestnut's successful defense of his title in the U.S. Chicken Wing Eating Championship, eating 220 wings. That soundly bested relative newcomer Gideon Oji, who ate 182, and third-place finisher Carmen Cincotti. Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, former six-time champ and crowd favorite, finished in the middle of the pack.
George Shea, Major League Eating's chairman and emcee, whipped up the crowd and had them laughing with over-the-top and stream-of-consciousness introductions and commentary, even rapping with contestant Eric "Badlands" Booker.
But people were there first and foremost to eat for themselves.
"I got to say, the Doc Sullivan beef on wecks are awesome," Erie Community College student Noah DeSalvo said.
"We tried the candy apple wings at Scallywags, with sweet sauce and little chunks of apple that actually stick to the wing," Boston Kistka said approvingly.
"I had a sweet Canadian bacon kind of thing from Windjammer's that was amazing," said Aaisha Thomas of New York City. "It was so good that I gave them maybe 10 tickets."
For the more than 20 chicken wing businesses, the event was all about gaining name recognition and bragging rights. Only the festival makes money, but the businesses are provided the wings and paper supplies, leaving them only to prepare their sauces.
"In the beginning I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a part of it because a lot of nationally recognized restaurants come in, but I don't regret it," said Tommy Cowan, owner of Doc Sullivan's in South Buffalo and the just-opened Forty Thieves Kitchen & Bar in Elmwood Village.
"We definitely got our wings out there, and we're holding our own," he said. "We also have got our name out there to people who probably would never have stopped in. I think that what it cost us to get in will pay off tenfold."
Scallywags Grub & Spirits, from Derby, got into the spirit by dressing up three people in full costume, portraying Blackbeard, Captain Jack Sparrow and Snow White.
"We look forward to it every year," owner Deebe Brown said. "We get a spike in business for weeks that follow, and throughout the year. People come from all over to have our wings because they had them here."
Andy LiButti, co-owner of Booty's from Surprise, Ariz., said the prestige from winning awards over the past five years at the premier chicken wing eating festival counts for a lot.
"Buffalo is an awesome place and we love coming here," said LiButti, who hails from Rochester. "We come because I want the recognition. As we build our brand, and try to get somebody to franchise our business, I can say we are an 11-time national Buffalo wing winner."
LiButti said a lot of customers told him he needs to open a restaurant in Buffalo, something his family has said to him, too. "It's a great feeling. It's good for my ego," he said.
The two long lines at Wing's Army to try the company's 17 varieties of wing sauces – both typically had more than 100 people in each – stood in stark contrast with the Anchor Bar two stands away. There were often no lines from the business where preparing chicken wings with hot sauce is said to have originated, perhaps reflecting the desire of those in attendance to try something less familiar.
"The lines are sick," said William Osuna, Wing's Army's marketing and publicity director. Wings Army, which began in Mexico 12 years ago, has 150 locations in that country.
Any plans to open in the United States – or Buffalo?
"Our owner wants to conquer the U.S.," Osuna said. "He did it in Mexico, so why not do it with you guys?"
"That place from Mexico is phenomenal," said Mike Montero of Cheektowaga, after downing some wings.
He was happy to be at the festival.
"What more culturally relevant thing could you have here than a wing fest, right?" he said. "It's part of who we are."
Jake Fraser, who turned 25 Sunday and wore a button to let others know, said the threatening weather earlier in the day was never going to keep him and girlfriend Jocelyn Geach away.
"We're Buffalonians – not a chance," he said. "We love chicken wings. I love the atmosphere here, and I love being part of Buffalo."