Buffalo Wild Wings and the triumph of the chicken wing

How a regional delicacy took over fast casual dining

Nick Teodori leans forward on the edge of his bar stool and decides to go for it.

"Do you know the rules?" asks the waitress, a tiny girl with a black ponytail. "No napkins. No blue cheese. No dairy. No water."

Teodori nods.

Brent Schoonover
Kris Drake

The waitress fetches a legal waiver and ballpoint pen. The document spells out the risks, but Teodori doesn't read a word. He signs with a flourish.

"Attention, Buffalo guests!" announces a booming voice. "We have a gentleman over here attempting our Blazin' Challenge!"

The diners erupt into hoots and whistles as the MC counts down: "Five...four... three...two...one!"

Teodori grips the first wing and lifts it to his lips. The searing scent of chili pepper burns before it even touches the lips.

Sweat beads on his forehead, but Teodori doesn't stop to wipe his brow. Bright orange sauce paints his face like a clown. His hands look like a slaughterhouse.

"Fifteen seconds left to go," the MC warns.

Time running out, Teodori strips the meat off the bone and drops it into the mass grave with eight seconds to spare.

"He did it!" the waiter announces. "Just under two minutes, at 1:52!"

The diners, looking for any reason to celebrate, lift their beers in salute.

It's Tuesday night at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Station 19 in Dinkytown. Across the country, at 732 restaurants just like this, the scene is being repeated by intrepid diners. Thousands have risked their digestive tracks to attempt the Blazin' Challenge. They didn't do it for the free T-shirt, or the Polaroid photo on the restaurant wall. They did it for the glory.

"It's a little bit of a clubhouse," says Allan Hickok, the Twin Cities' most prominent restaurant consultant. "They've got almost a $1 billion market cap, and what do they sell? They sell chicken wings."


FOUR DECADES AGO, Americans hardly touched chicken wings—the poultry industry sent the unwanted part abroad to less-finicky consumers, says Andrew F. Smith, food historian.

Yet today, the Buffalo wing is a staple at every good sports bar. Collectively, Americans will consume 13.5 billion chicken wings this year, according to the National Chicken Council—or about 43 wings per person.

"These little parts, they were almost like a throwaway item," says Tim Delaney, a sociologist at the State University of New York, Oswego. "To turn them into a commodity item is really a fascinating tale."

In 2009, for the first time in history, the wholesale price of chicken wings surpassed that of skinless boneless breasts, traditionally the priciest part of the bird. Buffalo Wild Wings now offers boneless wings made of breast meat in a move designed in part to hedge against price-gouging by wing suppliers.

There's no shortage of buyers, with several chains competing to be the McDonald's of the newly emerging food sector. After Buffalo Wild Wings, the next fastest-growing company in the pecking order is Texas-based Wingstop, with 475 outlets in 30 states, plus Mexico. There's also Wing Street (a sister company to Pizza Hut), Wing Zone, World of Wings Café and Wingery, Wings to Go, and Buffalo Wings N Rings.

"The whole Buffalo wing phenomenon took off some years ago," says the chicken council's Richard Lobb. "And it really has shown no signs of slowing down."

IT ALL STARTED with an Italian mother at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York.

"She didn't wake up one morning and say, 'I'm going to create wings,'" says Ivano Toscani, who now owns the Anchor Bar. "It just happened."

On that now-famous morning in 1964, Teressa Bellissimo received an extra-meaty shipment of wings at the Italian restaurant she ran with her husband Frank. They looked too plump to dump in the stockpot, so she set them aside for later.

The next day, her son Dominic was tending the bar when a bunch of his friends came by. Dominic asked his mother to make them something to eat that wasn't on the menu. Teressa's mind drifted to those meaty chicken wings.

She cut off the tips, sliced the flats from the drumettes, and deep-fried the wings, then topped them with a concoction of melted butter, cayenne pepper, and red-hot sauce. She dished up sides of blue cheese, sliced up celery, and brought out the newly invented snacks.

"Mother, what are those things?" Dominic asked.

"Chicken wings," Teressa replied.

The wings were an instant hit. Once they were added to the menu, they really took off—now the bar sells 2,000 pounds of Buffalo wings a day.

Within five years, a tavern across town copied Teressa's famous wings. Duff's had been around for a quarter-century, but it wasn't until Louise Duffney fried up her first batch of wings that the place really began to gain a name for itself.

Before long, Buffalo-style wings began to spread across New York and down the East Coast. When they moved, Buffalonians took their wings with them, to Paco's Tacos in Boston, and to a bevy of one-offs in south Florida, where snowbirds from upstate New York found respite from the winter cold.

In 1975, one of those snowbirds founded the nation's first wing chain. Edmund J. Hauck spread Wings N Curls from Florida to Indiana and California. As he built his empire, Hauck added a new twist: In addition to the traditional cayenne-hot-pepper-and-butter, Hauck dipped his wings in several other flavors of sauce.

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