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Wing lovers face double whammy of larger prices and smaller wings

An order of chicken wings, the food that is synonymous with Buffalo, may soon come with a side of sticker shock.

Wing prices are headed up nationally and locally and the culprit is the seemingly endless public appetite for the delicacy that was born here more than 50 years ago and is annually celebrated with an event that attracts wing aficionados from around the world.

"Every week they seem to get a little higher," said Nick Dubik, manager at DiPaulo's Pizzeria in the Town of Tonawanda, who said he has watched prices climb as chicken wings have become more popular.

That restaurants, supermarkets and wholesalers are now wringing their hands and checking bottom lines to keep serving a food that was once deemed unworthy of anything more than a stock pot or a garbage pail is another chapter in the rags-to-riches story of the lowly wing. But it's also a common story: Demand is outpacing supply.

In other words, the halcyon days of 10 wings for a dollar are gone and they're not coming back.

The Washington Post first reported the story earlier this week and said it's no secret why this is happening: Wings are everywhere. The Post ticked off the national and regional chains that, more or less, specialize in wings: not just Buffalo Wild Wings, but BonChon, Wingstop, Wing Zone and Hooters, among others. Then there are the pizza chains, such as Domino’s and Papa John’s, that have adopted wings.

Some local restaurants such as DiPaulo's have not yet increased prices to keep pace with the added costs, but that is becoming harder and harder to do.

"We haven't done it yet, but it's probably going to have to come to that," Dubik said.

[Related: Wing prices won't go up at Buffalo Wing Festival]

It did come to that for local wing powerhouse Duffs, which raised prices on its wings Thursday.

"We're trying to hold the line on prices, but it's harder and harder," owner Jeff Feather said. "The fact that you're paying more than a dollar a wing is hard for some people to understand, but that's the way it is."

Wholesale chicken wing prices are 35 percent higher than last year, and are expected to rise further, he said. That's why he just raised the price of a single order of 10 wings to $11.99.

In more than 30 years in the chicken wing business, he said he has seen wing prices fluctuate, usually in two-year cycles. "We're probably in a three- or four-year period when there hasn't really been much of a drop," he said. "Prices usually dip after the Super Bowl, but this year we didn’t even see that."

Western New York's two largest supermarket chains, Tops and Wegmans, are feeling the wing pinch as well.

Kathy Romanowski, public and media relations specialist for Tops Markets, said demand is strong but production has increased by less than 1 percent in the last four weeks as compared to the same period last year. She said prices are up 20 percent over the five-year average, approaching a record set in December 2012/January 2013.

Jo Natale, vice president of media relations for Wegmans, said the chain has absorbed cost increases in prepared foods and for fresh wings, while increasing the retail price of frozen chicken wings.

"Our goal is to hold the line on retail prices whenever possible," she said.

10 worthy heirs to the chicken wing throne

One place where wing-lovers will not see a price increase will bet at next month's 16th National Buffalo Wing Festival at Coca-Cola Field. Drew Cerza, organizer of the annual event, said he has no plans to charge more than the $1 per wing price that festival-goers have been paying.

Wing prices won't go up at Buffalo Wing Festival

"We've been at a dollar a wing for several years now, and that includes tax, so that's 92 cents a wing," he said. "We're holding our pricing."

Cerza, who is known as the "Wing King," said he has never seen chicken wing restaurant owners so worried about wing costs.

Clark Crook, owner of East Aurora's Bar Bill, said that's partly because chicken wing prices usually start coming down during the summer. They spiked this year, then just kept going up.

"Our prices are 35 percent over what we were paying last summer," he said. "The other problem is that as the price is going up, the size of the wings are going down. The producers are producing more but chickens aren't getting to full size, so the wings aren't as big as they used to be. So customers are facing the double whammy of increased prices and smaller product."

Bar Bill raised wing prices a dollar at the beginning of the summer, to $11.95 for 10. Customers are taking that in stride, since they can see the same things happening at Wegmans and Tops, he said, with meat prices going up. "We're being told from an industry perspective that there's not going to be a dip, that prices will continue to increase."

The Anchor Bar, the Buffalo restaurant that lays claim to being the home of the chicken wing, has not been immune. Mark Dempsey, Anchor Bar's vice president of marketing, noted that Anchor Bar lore has it that the chicken wings were in Teressa Bellissimo's kitchen in the first place because they were cheap and she was looking for something to do with them.

"Now they're more expensive than boneless chicken breast," he said.

The price of a 50-wing bucket was last adjusted two years ago, Dempsey said. "Down the road if this continues we'll have to look at raising them," he said. "Right now, we're not."

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