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The Globe and Mail

The perfect match: Super Bowl and chicken wings

Wings at The Real Sports Bar in Toronto

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Business can be unpredictable at Sammy's Hot Wings in Vancouver. On sunny days, customers line up out the door for the restaurant's halal chicken wings, says owner Sammy Hussein. "If it's raining? Forget it," he says.

But if there's one day of the year that's guaranteed to pack the house, regardless of the weather, it's Super Bowl Sunday.

"Super Bowl is one of the biggest days we have," Mr. Hussein says, noting he generally sells up to 400 pounds (181 kilograms) of chicken wings to fans watching the football extravaganza. His crispy, deep-fried Buffalo wings are a top seller.

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The anticipation of yet another Super Bowl rush this Sunday has Mr. Hussein busily preparing. "Right now, [while]you're talking to me, I'm cutting 200 chicken wings," he says by phone.

Chicken wings have become such a staple snack for football fans, consumption spikes every year across Canada and the U.S. during Super Bowl weekend.

Americans are expected to eat more than 1.25 billion chicken wings this weekend, according to the Washington-based trade association, the National Chicken Council.

In Canada, the national farmers' organization Chicken Farmers of Canada predicts a surge in demand for wings among Canadian spectators too, although it doesn't have specific Super Bowl data.

The National Football League championship Super Bowl XLVI, which takes place in Indianapolis on Feb. 5, will see the New York Giants face off against the New England Patriots.

For Canadian chain Pizza Pizza, the televised event is expected to translate into such a high volume of orders, the company is recommending that customers place their requests online before game day to beat the rush.

Last year, Pizza Pizza restaurants across the country sold more than 200,000 chicken wings for Super Bowl, chief marketing officer Pat Finelli says. In comparison, the company typically sells between 70,000 and 100,000 wings on a regular Sunday.

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Similarly, Boston Pizza's Canadian locations recorded a 55-per-cent increase in its in-restaurant sales of wings during Super Bowl last year, compared with a typical Sunday. For takeout orders, chicken-wing sales jumped to 108 per cent above normal, says Perry Schwartz, Boston Pizza's director of communications.

The company has increased its promotion of chicken wings since April 2011, when Boston Pizza launched a new line in a variety of sauces and styles. Because of this push, Mr. Schwartz says wing sales this Super Bowl are expected to double last year's numbers.

In addition to the football game, the mixed martial arts Ultimate Fighting Championship event UFC 143, and several hockey and basketball games also take place this weekend, making it an "ultimate men-tertaining weekend," resulting in predicted higher wing sales, Mr. Schwartz says.

Chicken wings and football, however, are a special match.

"Super Bowl, unlike any other championship I can think of, is really just a one-time, one-day...event," Mr. Schwartz says, noting wing sales are stretched out over several days for other sporting events that have a best-in-seven series.

Canadians who have brought home their experiences of NFL tailgating parties in the U.S., where fans hold barbecues in stadium parking lots, have likely contributed to their association of chicken wings with football, he says. Besides, he adds, "It's a finger food.... It's just easy to pick up off a plate and eat."

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In March 2011, when NFL owners imposed a lockout on players, U.S. chicken producers worried the breakdown in negotiations between owners and the players' union would jeopardize the entire season – and their wing revenues.

According to Bloomberg, U.S. producers , faced with high feed costs, slaughtered fewer chickens to reduce their losses during the latter half of 2011, resulting in a dip in supply that has helped push wholesale chicken wing prices to a high of around $1.79 (U.S.) per pound (about $3.93 Cdn. per kg) on Jan. 13.

But in Canada, wholesale wing prices are currently about the same as they were a year ago, between around $5 and $5.10 a kilogram.

While it's difficult to separate the volume of wings Canadians eat from the consumption of intact birds, Chicken Farmers of Canada estimates Canadians consume around 77 million kg of chicken wings a year, of which roughly 30 per cent are imported, mostly from the U.S. and Brazil.

Around 23 per cent of people watching the Super Bowl on television are expected to eat wings, which are second in popularity only to dips and spreads on game-day menus, data supplied by the U.S. National Chicken Council shows.

Bill Roenigk, senior vice-president of the council, says the link between chicken wings and football can be traced back 30 years. In the 1980s, chicken wings were an inexpensive by-product of companies producing high-demand breast meat, Mr. Roenigk explained in an e-mail. Savvy bar owners, however, discovered they could practically give away the spicy, salty snacks and increase beer sales significantly.

At the same time, he said, television became more prominent in bars and sets were always tuned to sporting events, like football. And although other snacks, like nuts and chips, are popular, there's a certain added macho factor associated with eating large quantities of wings.

"No one talks about some guy eating four bowls of chips," Mr. Roenigk said.

Although deep-fried chicken wings have long been a part of Southern U.S. cuisine, the ubiquitous Buffalo-style wings, which are fried and coated in hot sauce, originated from Buffalo, N.Y. In 1964, Teressa Bellissimo, then-owner of the Anchor Bar, cooked leftover wings for a late-night snack for her son and his friends, according to the National Chicken Council. The result was such a hit, she introduced it on the bar menu.

Buffalo wings received a massive boost in the 1990s, when McDonald's adopted the idea for its "Mighty Wings" at some of its restaurants, and Buffalo wings have been making their way onto menus around the world ever since.

"I suppose at the end of the day the real perfect storm is that they were in the right place at the right time. Being tasty, affordable, and a 'guy-thing' is probably the simple answer" to why chicken wings are practically synonymous with football, Mr. Roenigk said.

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