Buffalo's football team won't have a place in this year's Super Bowl hoopla, but don't worry, its chicken wings will.
Amid unnerving media reports about a potential shortage of the Buffalo-born appetizer heading into the big game, authorities say yes, production is down and yes, prices are up.
“But there's plenty of wings,'' assured Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council in Washington.
For those scoring at home, that'll mean about 1 billion wings scarfed down over the Super Bowl weekend.
“It's America's number one appetizer,'' said Drew Cerza, founder of Buffalo's annual chicken wing festival, who, incidentally, won't be frying up any wings on Sunday.
“It's my day off,'' he said.
In the last week or so, some fretted that the spicy snack would be scarce for a number of reasons: The highest wholesale and retail prices in recent memory; an industrywide, economy-driven drop in production of 5 to 6 percent; a bankruptcy filing from major Texas producer Pilgrim's Pride; a push to sell wings by restaurant chains like Pizza Hut and KFC; and worries that demand would exceed supply.
“It comes back to that old economics class that we all slept through in high school,'' Cerza said. “Less supply, more demand -- and this is the biggest chicken wing weekend of the year.''
Still, Buffalo's “Wing King'' found no evidence of independent restaurants being shut out of wings.
“I don't think there's a shortage. I just think the cost has gone up,'' Cerza said.
Chicken wings were missing for a day from the kitchen of one Niagara Falls restaurateur, but that was by design. Owner Sam Musolino refused to serve wings at Sammy's Pizzeria Monday to protest the annual price increases that arrive every year just in time for the big football weekend.
“They're basically just taking advantage of the pizzerias,'' said Musolino, who said he was paying $46 per 40-pound box of wings before the price jumped to $78 for the same case. With prices printed on menus, he can't pass along the temporary spike to customers -- not that they'd pay anyway, he said.
“Everyone's so tapped out these days, there's no way you can raise the prices,'' said Musolino, who has been in business for 47 years.
It's no trivial thing in this city on the shore of Lake Erie that gave the world Buffalo wings, a concoction born of -- what else? -- a hungry bar patron. The story goes that Anchor Bar owner Teressa Bellissimo first deep fried the wings and dunked them in hot sauce on a Friday night in 1964 to satisfy her son's hungry friends who dropped in at the Main Street establishment. Until then, the wings were usually used for the stock pot.
Lobb at the Chicken Council acknowledged prices are high, and that they do rise before every Super Bowl. Demand stays high through college basketball's March Madness as restaurants and pubs stockpile them, he said.
For the uninitiated, Lobb provided this wing primer. Each wing has three segments: the drumette or mini-drumstick; the flat, which is the middle part with two bones; and the flapper, the tip that isn't eaten.
As of Jan. 1, the poultry industry had 38.3 million pounds of chicken wings on hand, down from about 40 million pounds a year earlier and 46.3 million pounds at the beginning of 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The wholesale price for fresh wings delivered into New York City this week was $1.51 a pound, compared to $1.24 last year, $1.25 the year before and 97 cents a pound in 2006. (Chicken wings were 23 cents a pound for the first Super Bowl 43 years ago.) The retail price this week was $1.85 a pound, compared to $1.70 a year ago and $1.58 in 2007. Richard Parsons, assistant chief of Poultry Market News, an arm of the USDA, said places like KFC and Pizza Hut have increased demand for wings but he agrees with Lobb.
“Every football fan that wants to enjoy chicken wings on game day will be able to purchase them,'' he said.