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National chicken wing shortage means canceled specials, poultry price hikes in Charleston

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Home Team BBQ's smoked wings are among threatened menu items during the national chicken wing shortage. File/David Clarey/Staff

It's a finger lickin' bad time for Charleston restaurants feeling the impact of a national chicken wing shortage as prices skyrocket for the popular poultry portion. 

Oscar's of Summerville announced in late April its Tuesday wing deal was off the table for the time being. 

"At this time, due to a substantial chicken wing shortage, we are unable to serve wings that meet our quality standards," the restaurant's Facebook post read.

Owner Mark Deitch put it simply. 

"When you can't get your product in, it's hard to sell," he said. 

The shortage is caused, in part, by a staffing snarl from coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking plants and chicken farm shutdowns in Texas due to Winter Storm Uri, combined with a spike in demand as the vaccinated population returns to bars to watch sports and eat snacks.

Locally, restaurants are having to not only drop weekly specials but raise menu prices and serve up smaller than usual portions. 

Chicken wings can turn a profit when supplier prices are low, as seen in 2018, when Dallas-based chain Wingstop's profits and stock price soared as the price of wings fell by 23 percent.

But now, with prices almost doubled, restaurants are losing money by selling the finger food for its typical price. Others haven't been able to stock enough wings to keep them on the menu. 

Tattooed Moose's downtown and Johns Island locations have both run out of wings a few times this spring, but for the most part, they've stayed stocked. 

"It's not like we're Wild Wings or anything," said owner Mike Kulick. "But we're a larger account, so it's a little easier getting stuff."

The Wall Street Journal reported May 6 that chains, including Buffalo Wild Wings and KFC, weren't escaping the shortage unscathed, some forced to limit the sales of tenders, wings and filets. 

Wingstop's chief executive, Charlie Morrison, said the company was paying 26 percent more for bone-in wings. 

Tattooed Moose has been shorted on orders and forced to make tradeoffs, like abandoning the restaurant's signature jumbo wing size for smaller available options and receiving frozen rather than fresh portions. 

That's not to mention the price has jumped from around $2 a pound to $3.50 a pound. That spike happens every year around the Super Bowl, said Kulick. But this time, it's remained in place. 

Kulick said he'd have to sell a dozen wings for more than $20 to meet the industry standard for food costs. 

"People are going to balk when you raise prices," he said. "You just can't do it." 

The owner of D.D Pecker's Wing Shack in West Ashley said that's exactly what he plans to do. 

Derek Harris said at one point in April he ordered 20 cases of wings and received only eight. While supply has rebounded, the high costs have lingered, he added.

"I hate it, but … I am redoing my menu to raise the prices," said Harris. "I feel like we need to charge 'market value' for wings, like seafood places do for lobster."

Kulick at Tattooed Moose said the price surge isn't a mystery.

"You’ve got huge COVID epidemics in meatpacking plants out West, a crackdown on immigrants who work in those packing plants and then, they’re chickens," said Kulick. "You can’t just turn on a machine and make chicken wings." 

Home Team BBQ owner Aaron Siegel said the supply chain issue mirrors understaffing across industries right now. In part, there aren't enough workers to make sure that chicken gets from farm to table. 

Food distributor Sysco has been able to meet Home Team's hefty demand for one of the regional restaurant's most popular requests, said Siegel, but that's because of its customer status. 

"We've been lucky enough to get everything we need when we need it, but (it's because) we go through so many chicken wings," said Siegel. 

The Charleston area's three locations alone serve upward of 6,000 pounds of wings per week, he said. Plus, the restaurants have been able to swap supply between locations based on specific demand. 

Kulick notes this is just one protein supply issue that's hit the food and beverage world in the midst of the pandemic. 

Three months ago, it was ground beef. Before that, it was pork butts. Once, it was duck, he said. Chicken wings are just the latest.

Heinz ketchup packets, bubble tea and oat milk are on experts' radar next. 

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Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.

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