Chicken-lovers are going to have to wing it through the Great Poultry Crisis of 2021.
America’s biggest fast-food companies reported earnings this week, and executives from KFC to Wingstop stressed a dire situation — there’s simply not enough chicken to go around.
A meat-processing slowdown caused by pandemic safety measures along with a surge in demand for recently rolled out fried chicken sandwiches are largely behind the shortage, executives said this week.
"Demand for the new sandwich has been so strong that, coupled with general tightening in domestic chicken supply, our main challenge has been keeping up with that demand," David Gibbs, CEO of Yum Brands, said Wednesday on a conference call with investors. KFC, which is owned by Yum Brands, recently rolled out a new fried chicken sandwich.
Dallas, Texas-based Wingstop also noted a shortage this week, attributing it to suppliers who are struggling to recruit new workers to meet demand.
Companies across other industries have also noted the difficulty of recruiting new workers, with some business owners attributing the problem to increased unemployment benefits that make it more attractive to remain on government assistance.
"Suppliers are struggling, just as many in our industry are, to hire people to process chicken, thus placing unexpected pressure on the amount of birds that can be processed and negatively affecting supply of all parts of the chicken in the U.S., not just wings," Wingstop CEO Charles Morrison said Thursday.
"Until we see a marked change in the availability of labor for poultry producers, a labor shortage that we believe is largely fueled by the amount of government stimulus, we anticipate that wing prices could remain elevated for the balance of 2021," he added.
Bojangles, famous for its chicken and biscuits, isn’t immune either.
The Charlotte, North Carolina-based chain said in a tweet this week to a disappointed customer that, "we’re experiencing a system-wide shortage :( But they will be back soon!" The company did not immediately return the Post’s request for comment.
Some Buffalo Wild Wings locations have reportedly told customers that they are temporarily out of chicken wings, too.
Tom Super of the National Chicken Council said the situation isn’t quite a shortage, but added that the winter storm that hammered Texas earlier this year has also contributed to tightness in the supply chain.
"But wing demand in general over the past 14 or so months have proven to be ‘pandemic proof,'" Super said by email. "If you think about it, restaurants like wing joints and pizza places were built around takeout and delivery, so they didn’t have to change their business model that much during the pandemic. Wings travel well and hold up during delivery conditions."
He added that the tightness in supply and any related price increases won’t hurt demand for chicken, saying that as long as "people are sitting around watching TV and maybe drinking a beer, wings will remain in the game."
"As chicken production begins to resume back to a more normal pace of output in the coming months, and there is a better supply/demand ratio, prices should ease," he said.
Chicken has long been among the most popular meats in the US, but demand has surged in recent years with various fast-food chains launching their own fried chicken sandwiches.
Popeyes, which is owned by Restaurant Brands International, sparked the chicken wars in 2019 with a $3.99 sandwich that was so popular it sold out at many restaurants. That prompted other chains to seek to compete, including burger joints like McDonald’s, in what’s been deemed the so-called chicken wars.
That surge in demand comes along with heightened scrutiny of safety issues inside meat and poultry issues during the pandemic.
Many plants became COVID-19 hotspots, particularly across the Midwest, and lawsuits have alleged that the industry exacerbated outbreaks. The Trump administration ordered plants to remain open, despite safety concerns, to avoid severe shortages.
An industry official in North Carolina told WSOC-TV that demand will likely continue to rise as more restaurants fully reopen.
"What we need," the official told the local TV station, "is a four-winged chicken."