McDonald's Mighty Wings and fries

When you think about McDonald’s, what is the first thing that springs into your mind? Is it the company’s golden logo — popularly known as the Golden Arches — haunting midnight skies and some overcrowded food courts of the mid-2000s? Is it the franchise’s fries, either piping hot and delicious or cold and miserable? Or is it the face of its cartoonish mascots like Grimace, the Hamburglar, or the clown visage of Ronald McDonald himself? No matter what you imagined, it was most likely not a box full of deep-fried chicken wings.

But despite this, Mickey D’s did indeed take multiple cracks at making its very own wings. They were called Mighty Wings and, according to Chew Boom, they first hit store shelves in 1990 and were finally put to rest over a decade later in 2003. But, like so many other fast food meals, it rose again and had another run in 2013 and again in Atlanta, Georgia in 2016. However, though they were offered to the general public multiple times, Mighty Wings never became a mainstay on the menu.

So, why did McDonald’s get rid of its Mighty Wings? Why did they fail so hard when other attempted innovations took off and are now doing just fine at the fast food giant? If you’re wondering, you’re in the right place. This is the real reason McDonald’s got rid of its Mighty Wings.

Mighty Wings weren’t meant as a menu staple

Limited time only sign

It’s pretty safe to say that some McDonald’s items, such as the Big Mac or its notoriously delicious hash browns, could be on its menus until every store closes or the universe implodes — whichever happens first. But the first version of its Mighty Wings wasn’t intended to have the same sort of extended life. In 1993, the Associated Press reported that the Mighty Wings were meant only as a temporary promotional item like so many other products, though they were actually selling very well at that time.

In 2001, the Chicago Tribune further noted the ephemeral nature of the Mighty Wings. The chicken was intended to be part of a rotating slate of menu items that would attract customers who might otherwise wander off to a competing fast food restaurant.

So, perhaps it came as no surprise that, when the Mighty Wings returned in 2013, The Wall Street Journal stated that they’d only be on McDonald’s menus for a limited time during football season, entering the market in September of that year and leaving in November.

Many argued that the Mighty Wings were overpriced

Mighty Wings

When the Mighty Wings did return after its ’90s and the early 2000s run, they certainly weren’t being given away for free. The Los Angeles Times reported that you could buy a three-pack for $3.19, a five-pack for $4.99, and a 10-pack for $8.99. This means that, for two out of these three meal deals, a McDonald’s consumer would be ponying up around $1.00 per wing.

At the time, many reviewers believed that the price of the Mighty Wings was far too high. In 2013, Brand Eating, Kirbie’s Cravings, and GrubGrade all conveyed a level of concern about the amount that diners would have to shell out for the wings, though many still enjoyed the taste of the wings themselves.

What’s more, per Seeking Alpha, McDonald’s conceded that these wings were indeed more expensive than what was currently available from some of its competitors. Don Thompson, then the president and CEO of McDonald’s, said that "Mighty Wings resonated with consumers but performed at the lower end of our expectations […] although it performed within our targeted expectation range, again at the lower end, there’s a couple of things we can improve on, one is still affordability."

McDonald’s fans were struggling financially

Family struggling

Mickey D’s Mighty Wings weren’t just priced on the higher side. As it turns out, they may have also been released at what turned out to be an awkward moment. As Business Insider reported, the Golden Arches clientele were most likely to be in a financially tough spot during 2013. This meant that they weren’t super likely to spend their hard-earned money on this new chicken item. After all, why would you risk your savings on something that you’re not sure that you’d love when there’s a delicious and far more affordable McFlurry on offer?

Moreover, the sentiment that some Americans weren’t doing the best financially was reflected in the McDonald’s conference call covered by Seeking Alpha. During the call, CEO Don Thompson rather euphemistically said that the McDonald’s customer base at that time was "stressed a little more from a discretionary spending perspective."

However, Thompson then defended the Mighty Wings. He said, "We also have to have core news, and the core has to be affordable at a value menu price point, and premium based news whether that be McWraps or Mighty Wings […] those things help not only with margin, but they help with the excitement for customers."

McDonald’s Dollar Menu was a better deal

McDonald's cup in a car

Ah, the Dollar Menu. According to the Chicago Tribune, this list of cheap menu items was first launched in 2002 in order to boost Mickey D’s sales. It’s been a staple of McDonald’s and other fast food joints ever since.

But what does this menu have to do with the Golden Arches’ Mighty Wings? In December of 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported that these chicken items weren’t a hit, to the point where 10 million pounds of the stuff didn’t sell and were then sitting around. Some thought that the Dollar Menu and its competing low prices were partially responsible for the failure of the more expensive Mighty Wings. As one anonymous franchisee said, "Mighty Wings are proving once again that we can’t sell premium items in large numbers because we still have the Dollar Menu."

Additionally, as CEO Don Thompson admitted per Seeking Alpha, the Dollar Menu was a big deal for the company. "While it only represents 13% of 15% of sales historically," Thompson said, "you’ve got about a third of the customers that will leverage that dollar menu in some form or fashion. And so it is a strength." However, Thompson never confirmed that this series of low-cost items hurt the Mighty Wings sales.

The wings complicated the McDonald’s menu

McDonald's menu

According to Business Insider, the original McDonald’s 1940 menu only consisted of nine items, including a classic cheeseburger, fries, and Coca-Cola. However, since then, different menu items have been coming and going from these fast food franchises for years now. Moreover, for better or for worse, this has pushed the McDonald’s menu to become more complex.

The Motley Fool believes that the Golden Arches’ Mighty Wings were an unnecessary item that contributed to a frustrating case of menu bloat. It could be that the Mighty Wings, like so many other menu features, weren’t really wanted by consumers in the first place, leading to their downfall. Perhaps, some have wondered, it be better if the fast food restaurant returned to a more simplified menu that avoided choice paralysis and allowed orders to flow more quickly.

Likewise, CEO Don Thompson admitted that the McDonald’s menu had become too elaborate, according to Consumerist. While he didn’t mention the Mighty Wings by name, he did go so far as to say that "We overcomplicated the restaurants and didn’t give restaurants an opportunity to breathe." In the same conference call, Thompson also stated, "We need to do fewer products with better execution."

Mighty Wings were too spicy for some

Cayenne peppers

"Spicy" can get to be a pretty subjective term, with one person’s flaming hot dish being another’s mild. It’s no surprise that McDonald’s Mighty Wings got a variety of reviews that either lauded or complained about the level of heat in the chicken wings. But was their cayenne and chili pepper seasoning really too much for some? Well, according to CBS News, the answer to both of these questions is yes, with multiple customers claiming that the flavoring on the McDonald’s Mighty Wings was all too much for their heat-sensitive taste buds.

McDonald’s President and CEO Don Thompson conceded on a conference call that the Mighty Wings were too spicy for some of their consumers (via Seeking Alpha). In Thompson’s rather modulated words, "The flavor profile was slightly spicy for some consumers." Thompson further stated that McDonald’s "can address the challenges with spice" if they were to reintroduce chicken wings onto the U.S market at a later time and under better conditions.

McDonald’s already had McNuggets

McNugget meal

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the debut of McDonald’s Mighty Wings was the fact that the restaurant already had a well-known and loved chicken menu item: the McNugget. And it’s been around for a while. According to History, the McNugget first hit the market in 1981. The New York Times reported that McDonald’s Chairman Fred Turner envisioned the ideal McNugget as "a boneless piece of chicken" that would be distributed "almost like French fries." Since then, the McNugget has become a staple of the McDonald’s menu.

So, when Mickey D’s was about to reintroduce their Mighty Wings in 2013, The Atlantic wondered if the chain would be able to topple the joint’s original chicken product, especially when boneless pieces of chicken were in vogue. After all, rival Kentucky Fried Chicken was then pursuing boneless chicken items, while Popeyes had already released a chicken tender and waffle meal, indicating that there was existing demand for these sort of menu items. So, why introduce a bone-in chicken item that, according to one interpretation of the fast food landscape, wasn’t guaranteed to please consumers?

The fact that the McDonald’s Mighty Wings didn’t sell suggests that maybe those gloomy forecasts were right, after all. These chicken items flopped pretty spectacularly, while the franchise’s McNuggets remain on McDonald’s menus across the world. Seriously, why purchase expensive wings when there’s an easier-to-eat and cheaper meal that you already know is going to be good?

The Mighty Wings took ages to cook

Deep friers

Fast food is meant to be fast — it’s in the very name of the concept, after all. It isn’t meant to be lackadaisical or moderately quick food. Fast means fast means fast. Ergo, if your fast food isn’t making its way from kitchen to customer in as short a time as possible, then you might have a bit of a problem.

This brings us to yet another issue that was identified with the Mighty Wings. Serious Eats noted that the restaurant’s 18 wings took an agonizing 10 minutes to cook after ordering. Impulsive Buy also mentioned that they also had to wait about 10 minutes to receive their Mighty Wings meal. While McDonald’s never officially acknowledged that long wait times led to low Mighty Wings sales, it’s all but certain that long wait times proved to be especially frustrating for customers, especially when they were used to getting their fast food meals in a fraction of the time needed to pop Mighty Wings in the fryer.

The sauces weren’t designed to be dipped

Mighty Wings dip

Some people love dips. Some love dipping carrots into hummus, others can be found dipping chips into guacamole, and that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, there is an understandably huge demand for dipping chicken wings into various sauces. If that weren’t the case, why on Earth would Buffalo Wild Wings offer so many different wing sauces in the first place?

Therefore, it’s worth asking whether or not Mickey D’s Mighty Wings could be easily dipped. And this leads one to the disappointing yet predictable conclusion by Business Insider: they can’t. The sauce packets offered alongside the wings simply weren’t formed to an optimum shape for dipping with the chicken wings, so it was basically impossible to slather one’s wings in additional sauce flavor. According to Business Insider, this was quite possibly the biggest drawback to the Mighty Wings experienced.

Both Brand Eating and STL Wing Review mentioned similar issues with marrying chicken wing and sauce, which is an otherwise fundamental aspect of the wing-eating experience. After all, the quality of one’s wings and sauces aren’t the only ingredients for success. You also have to serve these items in an accessible manner.

McDonald’s was forced to sell Mighty Wings at a loss

McDonald's Mighty Wings

As previously stated, the 2013 run of McDonald’s Mighty Wings didn’t sell out, and it was a pretty bad situation for the restaurant all around. The Wall Street Journal reported that this company even had 10 million pounds of leftover wings and, given the way that food tends to spoil if it sits around for too long, they had to move the wings fast.

So, how does one get rid of that much unsold chicken? In 2014, Yahoo Finance reported that Mickey D’s plan was to sell the remaining Mighty Wings at hugely discounted rates. Ultimately, McDonald’s dropped its wing price from around $1.00 per wing to around 60 cents per piece, a dramatic drop overall.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The Wall Street Journal also reported that McDonald’s informed its franchises that they must participate in the discount Mighty Wings promotion. If franchisees refused, they’d be the ones fronting the bill for all that leftover chicken.