Can You Wing It?
The debate about whether to offer chicken wings is a hot topic among operators and not just a post-pandemic issue. Pricing and availability of chicken wings has been a long-standing issue for pizzeria operators. Chicken wings may very well cost more per pound than a high-quality chicken breast, and that’s on a typical day. Don’t even think about stocking up the week of the big game, you’ll be hard-pressed to find chicken wings. And if you do, you’ll have to take out a second mortgage on your family home just to buy them.
So why offer wings at all? Wings are hot! The people want wings! They are, in most cases, gluten-free, high protein, and naturally low carb, and there are so many ways to make them uniquely yours! From traditional hot to sweet and tangy, hot wings are here to stay. But are they right for your operation?
Here are some things to consider when deciding to put wings on the menu:
If you are working with a raw chicken wing, they must be stored below any ready-to-eat ingredients in your cooler. This can present some challenges in a kitchen with limited space. IQF (individually quick frozen) wings on the other hand may be easily stored in your freezer, but, well, they’re frozen so you will need to factor that into your cook time.
Assuming that you are looking to provide value to your guest, you will want a wing with some substance, some meat on the bone, so to speak. A jumbo wing, 6 to 10 per pound, makes for a hearty, eye-catching wing. Depending on your choice of preparation methods, it could take up to 20 minutes for a jumbo wing to reach a safe internal temperature and be nice and crispy on the outside.
Perhaps one of the more common methods of preparation is the deep fryer, which yields a nice crispy texture on the outside. Deep frying your wings can take longer than other methods. On average, deep fryers are set to 300-350 F, which may be great for French fries or chicken Parm, but makes for longer chicken wing cook times. Beware, deep frying can sometimes cause the meat to shrink and pull back from the bone… but delicious nonetheless.
If you are considering the deep fryer method, ask yourself if you have the fryer space to devote to wings. If you’re selling great wings, you can assume that at least one fryer basket will be devoted to wings. How will this affect your ticket times for other menu items? Another thing to consider is that wings are hard on fryer oil. You will be cleaning and replacing fryer oil more often, increasing the expense of labor and product.
I turned to my teammates, World Pizza Champions Anthony DeSouza of Antonio’s Real New York Pizza in Estes Park, Colorado, and Jeff Smokevitch of Brown Dog Pizza in Telluride, Colorado, to see what they are doing to solve the challenges of the chicken wing. Anthony invested in an infrared broiler and reduced his cook time from 20 to 8 minutes. This was a significant investment but a total game-changer for him. Jeff offers wings prepared two ways, deep fried from raw, with a prep time of about 20 minutes, or his Jerk wings, which are par grilled ahead of time, finished on the griddle to order, and are hot and ready in 10 minutes.
If neither of these methods works for your operation, you can run them through a conveyor oven or even bake them off in a deck oven. Neither are lightning fast, nor do they provide the crispiness that the some other methods offer, but they get the job done!
Price fluctuations in the wing market are the nature of the beast. It is nothing new, although it is more pronounced these days. Many operators have adopted digital menus using QR codes instead of print menus, which has led the way to dynamic pricing. There are no menus to reprint, just update the digit file and upload it!
QR codes and digital menus allow operators to update menu prices based on the market price and is a great way to keep your target cost of goods in line. While many guests have adapted to viewing restaurant menus this way, some have not, so digital menus may only be a solution for some concepts. Beware that there are people who can’t read the mobile version of your menu on their phones or just like to hold and look at a print menu. At best, digital menus could be an inconvenience for them, at worst, this could lead them to not return — but you know your customers best.
If dynamic pricing and QR codes aren’t for you, know that your food cost is going to be an average of your entire product mix. While your food cost on wings could be upwards of 40 percent, you can balance that with your pizza and pasta dishes in the neighborhood of 10-12 percent.
Sauces and Rubs
Wings can be an outlet for your culinary creativity or to add variety to your menu. Use fresh ginger, chili sauce, honey, brown sugar and dark soy sauce to make sticky sweet Asian wings, or blend balsamic reduction, minced garlic, and minced Serrano pepper to make a hot and sweet Italian-inspired wing sauce.
If you fancy dry rubs, you can purchase an IQF frozen rotisserie wing that comes pre-seasoned and then toss them in the desired sauce after they’re fully cooked. If you decide to make your own dry rub, it is best to par broil, grill or bake the wings before frying as the dry rub tends to come off in the deep fryer. The possibilities are endless! With all of this said, I always try to minimize adding skews to my inventory, so I like to use ingredients that I already have on hand.
In summary, if you are going to wing it, be aware of your storage space, the impact that adding a new menu item will have on your ticket times.
Don’t forget to have fun and stay true to your brand!
MELISSA RICKMAN is co-founder of Wholly Stromboli in Fort Lupton, Colorado, and member of the World Pizza Champions.