Chicken wings have been an increasingly popular pandemic food, and during the biggest snacking day in sports, we may pay the price.
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The Super Bowl is coming up fast. But while sports fans may be asking, "Who's the better quarterback: Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes?" some restaurants may be dealing with a more serious question: "Do we have enough chicken wings?"

Chicken wing shortages—or at least price spikes—have been a regular phenomenon in recent years (I've covered it in 2015, 2017, and 2020) as demand for the once-marginal chicken part has exploded into a full-on Buffalo wing phenomenon. But as The Washington Post reports, the pandemic has created an even more dynamic rollercoaster ride than usual for wings—and the pressure on prices is hitting especially hard in the lead up to one of the biggest wing days of the year.

line of buffalo chicken wings drenched in different sauces
Credit: rez-art/Getty Images

The Super Bowl is where the story starts: Last year, the game went off without a hitch, and the future for wings was looking fine. But by the time the next big Buffalo wing event rolled around—March Madness—the pandemic was in full swing and the 2020 NCAA Basketball Tournament was abruptly canceled. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, both prices and production crashed around this time. COVID-19 also forced restaurants to close, upended supply chains, and altered people's shopping habits, putting pressure on the chicken wings market along with everything else.

But as people settled into the new normal of ordering in and experimenting with new foods in the kitchen, demand for chicken wings shot up even higher than before. Wing joints have been some of the most common new restaurants to open in the past year—with everyone from Applebee's to Nathan's to even Chuck E. Cheese spinning off wing-heavy delivery-only concepts on the side.

As a result, the National Chicken Council cites data that servings of chicken wings sold at restaurants were actually up seven percent in 2020 compared to 2019 even though people were going to restaurants 11 percent less. "If you think about it, restaurants like wing joints and pizza places were built around takeout and delivery," spokesman Tom Super explained. "Plus, they align with consumer desire for comfort food during the pandemic."

But the Council cites data that more people are also buying wings at the grocer to make a home. Data firm IRI says that supermarket wing sales were up over ten percent during the pandemic, with sales of frozen wings, in particular, jumping over 37 percent. Overall, a National Chicken Council survey found that a quarter of people said they've eaten more wings since coronavirus struck.

So, unsurprisingly, the cost per pound for chicken wings has steadily increased—bucking the usual sports-tied pattern—and prices are currently up about 40 percent from where they were last January. "What's been really strange about this year is it's actually been really strong since late summer, the demand for wings," Christine McCracken, executive director of animal protein at Rabobank, told The Post. "And that's made it a bit harder for people who didn't have a plan going into [the Super Bowl] or are trying to catch up with demand."

That's because things will reach a peak this weekend: According to the National Chicken Council's annual pre-Super Bowl "Wing Report," Americans are expected to eat a record 1.42 billion wings during this year's game, a 2 percent bump from 2020.

So come Sunday, with so many options out there, any "shortage" doesn't necessarily mean you don't be able to find wings. However, don't be surprised if any cost increases are passed along to the consumer—even in subtle ways. "There may not be a noticeable price bump on menus or at the grocery stores," journalist Jacob Bogage wrote for WaPo, "but companies may look to be more stingy with discounts or promotions."