Matt Borman, owner of the Thirsty Mule in Oakland, cooks a batch of chicken wings Wednesday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The Thirsty Mule isn’t chickening out.

Making wings dine-in only at the Oakland restaurant and bar is strictly a business decision, one of the number of approaches taken by local businesses in reaction to a perceived nationwide scarcity and sky-high prices for chicken wings. That means wings can no longer be ordered for take-out due to a lack of profitability.

“My rationale is, if you’re going to get wings, which I’m not going to make a ton of money on, you’re going to wash it down with something that I pour,” Thirsty Mule owner Matt Borman said.

Another local bar and restaurant has canceled its wing night, while other places can’t even order wings and are feeling the heat from customers complaining as menu prices increase.

As wholesale food costs continue to increase across the board, chicken wings are one of the most curious cases for central Maine restaurants. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, wholesale poultry prices were predicted to have increased between 13%-16% last month due to high feed cost, increased demand and changes in the supply chain. In general, wholesale prices “are typically far more volatile” than consumer prices in reaction to market supply and demand. Poultry price increases outpaced those of beef (1.5%-4.5%), cattle (5%-8%) and pork (8.15%-11.5%).

Tom Super, spokesperson for the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based National Chicken Council, cautioned using the term “shortage” to describe the current situation as “a bit of a stretch.” After production of broiler chickens, those raised for meat, was down approximately 4% during the first quarter, production picked up in April with year over year weekly production increases since April 10.

As for wings specifically, Super said southern chicken producers endured setbacks during an unusual and powerful February winter storm. The storm happened right after the Super Bowl, an annual time of high demand. Further, chicken wings were a 287% more popular order in 2020 than 2019, according to Grubhub’s annual “Year in Food” study.

“It will take time and effort to eventually replace the impacted hatchery supply flocks in that region, but supply should catch back up to demand soon,” Super said. “So as high as demand is for wings right now, even small gaps in the supply of wings can cause big fluctuations in price.

“Bottom line — wing demand has been and remains high,” he continued. “Each chicken only has two wings and producers don’t raise chickens just for the wings, they have to sell all of the other parts, as well.”

University of Kentucky meat scientist Gregg Rentfrow believes there is a wing shortage due to an infertility issue at chicken farms across the country. Rentfrow expects prices of chickens to normalize by summer’s end.

“The chicken industry is so vertically integrated, and they had an issue with infertility. And I believe Tyson was the one,” Rentfrow said. “The other thing is we’re getting vaccinated and restaurants are opening up. … So that makes for a big issue with the chicken population and chicken processing.”

A batch of chicken cooks Wednesday at the Thirsty Mule in Oakland. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

For local bars and restaurants like The Thirsty Mule, chicken wing demand follows with national trends, increasing in February around the time of the Super Bowl. With that, prices go up.

This year was no different, with a 40-pound case costing a “not great” $88 around Super Bowl time, Borman said. Instead of a normal regression in the following weeks, prices skyrocketed. The cost for a case of wings from Sysco now hovers around $160 and just one case was available for ordering this week.

Some more drastic wing-inspired measures were taken, including at You Know Whose Pub on Waterville’s Main Street. The business outright canceled its 75-cent wing Wednesdays, according to a staff member.

Stavros Kosmidis, owner of Waterville House of Pizza, can’t even order chicken wings from his main distributor, U.S. Foods.

“It’s crazy,” Kosmidis said.

So for now, Waterville House of Pizza is using Portland-based Micucci Wholesale Foods for its wings. Instead of paying approximately $130 for 20 pounds of chicken, Kosmidis now pays over $200. Buffalo wings are hard to find, as are mozzarella sticks and jalapeño poppers.

Rita LaCroix owns Rita’s House of Pizza in Winslow and is the co-owner of Unity House of Pizza. Both restaurants sell wings, but pizza is the focus. Nonetheless, LaCroix orders from three vendors to keep a stock of chicken wings, paying nearly double the prices for wings and chicken tenders. Prices have been raised on those items a bit to cover the cost of the food, not for more profit.

“The distributors told me it was coming down the line about a month ago because the processing plants do not have the staffing they need to process the chicken,” LaCroix said. “Anything that’s processed, breaded, cut, they’re having issues with.”

LaCroix said a customer recently gave a staff member a hard time for the prices being raised from what is advertised on the menu. It’s either raise the prices or cut the item, she said. The latter is not feasible because of their popularity. Pizza is the Winslow business’s specialty, but they do sell approximately 100 pounds of wings per week.

“We’re in a pandemic, folks,” LaCroix said. “We can’t give it away. We have to at least make back what we’re paying.”

At The Two Cent Pub in Winslow, wings are purchased locally at Emery’s Meat and Produce in Gardiner. Fresh wings, purchased at the consumer rate, are grilled instead of friend because they have no hood system or fryolator.

The last time The Two Cent Pub owner Stacy Barnes purchased wings, she paid $4 a pound. The pub normally does a wing special Wednesdays during slower nights and are not always a part of the menu.

“We’ll continue to have them, because they’re an item we run on special,” Barnes said. “I’m sure we’ll (bring them back), but I’m not sure what night of the week it’ll be.”

Back at The Thirsty Mule, wing preparation is a labor-intensive process. Each wing is grilled between 30-45 minutes and cooked twice, not dumped in a fryolator. They also make sides of blue cheese and ranch dressing from scratch. Wings prices at the restaurant are up to almost $2 per wing, and Instead of an annual price increase, they’ve gone up multiple times over the last few months to make it a worthwhile menu item.

While seemingly everything is going up in price, are wings the most drastic example at The Thirsty Mule?

“Probably,” Borman said. “Yeah.”

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