America's love for chicken wings has only grown during the pandemic. And big restaurant chains from Applebee's to Domino's want in.
Shares of Wingstop (WING), a chicken wing chain with nearly 1,300 restaurants nationwide and roughly 160 locations abroad, have popped nearly 60% this year. Morningstar restaurant analyst R.J. Hottovy said in a report last week that the chain is among restaurants that have "separated themselves from the pack in recent months."
Wingstop has seen sales soar during the pandemic. In the 13 weeks that ended on June 27, sales at domestic restaurants open at least a year jumped nearly 32%.
The brand could continue to grow during football season, according to a September industry update from Stifel. "Wingstop's primary hurdle has been a lack of consumer awareness," the report noted, adding that "a substantial number of new customers have been introduced to the brand."
Smaller wing chains have seen growth, too. Wing Zone, which has about 70 locations in the United States, has seen sales spike about 25% from March to September compared to last year.
"This has been the greatest sales surge we had in our 27-year history," said co-founder and CEO Matt Friedman.
Sales at Atomic Wings, a smaller chain based in New York City, spiked up to 100% in some locations, said CEO Zak Omar.
Wings have been becoming more popular in recent years, said Peter Saleh, restaurant analyst with BTIG. But growth has accelerated during the pandemic because chicken wings are great for delivery and feeding groups of people.
"It retains its heat. You can buy to feed a family or multiple people, so it's more communal," Saleh said.
The menu item's success has captured the attention of other food chains, Saleh noted, explaining that "they see the growth in the category and the viability of the offering."
For example, Applebee's introduced a "Neighborhood Wings by Applebee's" virtual brand in the spring.
"At Applebee's restaurants, wings are a top selling menu item, especially for To Go in 2020," said Scott Gladstone, vice president of strategy and development at Applebee's in a statement emailed to CNN Business. He added that Neighborhood Wings is available at 750 locations through Grubhub.
And Brinker International (EAT), which owns Chili's and Maggiano Little Italy, recently launched "It's Just Wings," which is available via delivery platform DoorDash and has a limited menu: wings, a variety of sauces, curly fries and, for dessert, fried oreos with chocolate sauce.
The concept is doing well so far, said Brinker CEO Wyman Roberts during an August conference call discussing the company's second-quarter financial results. "Sales continue to build every week," he said. "We clearly see the potential to exceed $150 million in the brand's first year."
Casual dining brands like Chili's and Applebee's have long marketed themselves as spots to visit in person, so customers may not think of them as restaurants that would do takeout or delivery well — even though they have wings on their menus. The online-only wing brands could bring in those customers and help the companies capitalize on the trend.
Pizza chains, which have seen their own pandemic-fueled surge in demand, are also set up well for the trend, said Morningstar's Hottovy, because they can use pizza ovens to cook wings.
Domino's, which already served chicken wings, unveiled a new recipe this summer.
"Wings are a rapidly growing category, as many of you know, in delivery and carryout," said Domino's CEO Richard Allison during a July earnings call with analysts. "We're very excited about this launch."