The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sales days of the year for Fat Brands, which offers chicken wings — a menu item synonymous with the big game — at seven of its 17 restaurant franchises.
But chicken wing supply has been volatile over the past few years. Prices for the product rose so high last summer that competitor Wingstop created a virtual brand called Thighstop at 1,400 locations in part to attempt to steer diners away from its namesake offering and reduce food costs and supply chain disruption.
That market uncertainty shaped Fat Brand's Super Bowl experience in 2021, pushing the restaurant company to shore up on frozen and boneless wings as a stopgap. It was also difficult to find the smaller wings diners enjoy, CEO Andy Wiederhorn told The Washington Post, because chicken suppliers were letting hens grow larger to trim costs around new hatchlings.
This year, the supply landscape is more favorable despite high costs. While the USDA reports the price of a pound of party wings is more than a dollar more than last year, wing supply has steadily improved.
Customers are more comfortable dining out, too.
"We're seeing a big bounce back in activity in the restaurants. Sales are up double digits in polished casual dining, by single digits in the burger business over 2021, let alone 2019," Wiederhorn said. "So a very strong jump up in sales as customers are coming back into restaurants."
Below, Wiederhorn details how wing supply issues in the recent past have informed contingency plans ahead of this year's Super Bowl, as well as labor strategies the company has in place in case of COVID-19 disruptions.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Restaurant Dive: How big of a sales event is the Super Bowl for Fat Brands overall?
ANDY WIEDERHORN: You see different spikes at different brands, but 40% of our 2,300 restaurants sell wings, so [the impact] is very material. In terms of activity at the restaurants, some brands like Twin Peaks are gonna sell an awful lot and have a lot of sports bar activity. Other brands like Fatburger and Buffalo's Express will have wing platters go out, and then you have Hurricane Grill & Wings, Buffalo's Cafe and Native Grill & Wings, which are a little bit more fancy dining, but have... big bars, so they'll still see significant [sales]. We'll sell more than 135,000 pounds of wings on Sunday. Certainly well over a million wings, that's for sure.
How were the Fat restaurants that sell wings impacted by chicken wing shortages last year around the Super Bowl?
WIEDERHORN: We definitely saw price increases and ebbs and flows in availability. Surprisingly, the supply chain seems pretty well in order right now and pricing is pretty reasonable. We're used to seeing a 15% increase in wing prices a few short weeks leading up to the Super Bowl and we're not really seeing that.
Where are prices hovering right now?
WIEDERHORN: We're doing like $120 a case right now. But we expect that to drop to as much as $110 per case by the time March Madness kicks in. So we think there's gonna be continued favorable production and pricing.
During the shortages last year, did you make operational pivots that inform your supply strategy for this year's big game?
WIEDERHORN: As a backup we have boneless wings, and you can always have frozen product now. But customers want bone-in wings and they want fresh, not frozen, which is why they're backup strategies and generally not the norm. But we ordered early from our supply chain and were assured they would protect us and that we would get what we needed for 2,000 restaurants, so we feel pretty happy with how that all came together.
How have supply chain issues impacted Fat Brands restaurants overall throughout the past two years?
WIEDERHORN: If you're talking about the global supply chain, not just chicken wings, we've made some changes. For example, we have plant-based proteins. We have chicken sandwiches, not just burgers. So we've been able to sort of manage our menu direction as we've had ebbs and flows in supply chain or in pricing to emphasize different options as you deal with what's going on there.
But we've been fairly unscathed on a global basis. For example, some of the restaurants, like Twin Peaks, experienced some alcohol shortages of certain brands for a short period of time. But it's not like when the customer is at the bar and you don't have their favorite tequila because you can't get it temporarily that they're not still going to order a drink. They're just going to switch to something else. So people have been very understanding and very accommodating and restaurants have dealt with supply chain issues, but we've just been able to manage the menu mix a little bit more. If we feel like we're potentially short on a certain supply chain, maybe we're not going to promote those products as much as we'll promote something else.
How are you preparing staffing for Super Bowl crowds amid the omicron COVID-19 variant?
WIEDERHORN: The biggest omicron issue is just whether we have any restaurants affected by employees being sick — you can have 20% of your restaurants shut down in the blink of an eye if you have a real outbreak. But I have to say that it really feels like, from an employee health and safety standpoint, we're on a downhill slope. It was much worse a few weeks ago than it is now — much worse over the holidays and over the month of December. So we feel like it's peaked already in many of our restaurant communities where employees were sick and we had some temporary closures and things like that, but we're not seeing that now.
What operational contingency plans have you put in place to offset labor issues?
WIEDERHORN: What we've done this year is delay LTOs and things that are more complicated for the serving staff and the kitchen staff to crank out and we tried to keep the menu simple. If we have a reduction in labor, we don't want to compromise on service or the experience. Our thinking was let's not make things too complicated and just take advantage of things have reopened and there is very, very strong demand, and we can get a little bit more complicated with the menu after the Super Bowl.