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This One Fast-Food Item Is Exploding in Popularity

Move over, chicken sandwich.

If 2019 was the year of the crispy chicken sandwich, this year wholly belongs to another part of the beloved bird—the wing. While last year key fast food players dove headfirst into a competition for the ultimate crispy chicken patty in a bun, this year, many are betting on wings and their accompanying sauces as a new area of growth.

But the chicken wings craze isn't just a brainchild of fast food franchises—Americans have shown a rise in appetite for the familiar comfort food this year. We've been ordering more chicken wings than ever during the pandemic, which makes sense because wings seem to be the perfect pandemic food. They've got the craveability factor of a classic comfort food, they travel better than most other fast foods without having their texture or flavor compromised, and they can be eaten as an entrée or a side, easily feeding a crowd either way.

New wings brands are going digital

The new demand for wings has coincided with another growing trend among fast food franchises this year—going all in on digital concepts. Many new entrants into the chicken wings arena are kicking their brands off virtually, meaning they only offer wings for delivery via apps, and often under a different name.

For example, Chili's parent company launched Just Wings this year, a virtual concept offering delivery-only wings from more than 1,000 Chili's and Maggiano's kitchens. The wings, which are only available via DoorDash, are posed to grow into a $150-million-a-year business. The premise is straightforward: choose between three types of wings (boneless, bone-in, or smoked) and 11 sauces.

Similarly, Applebee's launched Neighborhood Wings by Applebee's on GrubHub in the spring, and fast casual BBQ chain Smokey Bones opened The Wing Experience virtual concept at all of its 61 locations earlier this month.

Even chains that consider wings a little off-brand are taking the leap. Fazoli's, which is better known for pasta, is jumping on the wings wagon with Wingville, a newly rebranded virtual wing concept they'll be adding to 60 of their locations.

Biggest names in chicken wings

But it isn't just the newbies that are seeing an opportunity in wings. Taco Bell was spotted testing a new chicken wing menu item in at least one California location last month.

And Domino's just recently expanded its already existing wings offering. When the pizza giant realized they were missing the most popular chicken wing flavor, they decided to reassess and rebuild their whole wings program. "We didn't offer hot Buffalo sauce, and that's synonymous with wings. And we wanted to optimize our barbecue sauce," Domino's CMO Art D'Elia told Restaurant Business. They now offer better sauces than ever, and also stand out because they bake their chicken wings in pizza ovens instead of frying them, which minimizes sogginess during delivery.

But if you want to sample the ultimate wings in the game from a brand that everyone's trying to emulate, your pick should be Wingstop. The Dallas-based chain with more than 1,000 locations nationwide largely relies on takeout and delivery, and its meteoric growth this year is credited as being the spark that ignited the wing craze in the first place.

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Mura Dominko
Mura is ETNT's Executive Editor, leading the coverage of America's favorite restaurant chains, grocery stores, and viral food moments. Read more about Mura