The secret ingredient of the world’s best chicken wings
Folks can debate all they want about who makes the best wings, but please. They are served at Duff’s Famous Wings on Sheridan and Millersport in Buffalo.
And now I know why.
Recently, a remembrance of Ron Duff, whose mother Louise Duffney opened the restaurant in 1946, was posted on the company’s Facebook page by his son Joe. It explains in loving detail the many keys to Duff’s success.
First, Ron’s passion for wings. Joe Duff writes, “We sell wings because my dad loved wings.” He loved them before they were a thing, before, really, they even were wings in the style we know them now. He was a fan of John Young’s Wings ‘n Things deep-fried recipe, coated with spicy “mambo” sauce, that he’d take with him to Bills games to eat with friends. Young, a Black restaurateur, is today considered the originator of wings in Buffalo. According to an article by John Korfhage, various wing recipes had long been a part of the African American community.
Ron also liked the twist on wings, including bleu cheese dressing and celery sticks, created at Frank & Teressa’s Anchor Bar.
Ron also learned about making wings from his friends at the Sheridan Drive restaurant La Hacienda, just before they retired in 1969. They told him to start selling them at Duff’s. Joe notes that they started selling 20 pounds a week. Now, it’s 12–14,000 pounds a week.
Ron was just 30. But he had already been working at the family restaurant since he was seven.
Which sets up the second reason for Duff’s success: Ron’s passion for hard work. Want proof? He had to stop cooking wings himself, because over 35 years he damaged both his rotator cuffs shaking countless baskets of wings.
More proof. Joe’s family was expecting Ron to show up for Thanksgiving dinner, but he was late and not answering his phone. Thanksgiving is a down day for many restaurants, Joe explains, an opportunity to get things done. He knew where to find his father. At the restaurant. Sure enough, he was there—sweeping the parking lot.
“There were no days off for my dad.”
Joe also writes about his father’s insistence on quality. The wings had to be fresh, not frozen. The rolls were from Costanzo’s Bakery, the celery “large and crisp,” the bleu cheese dressing as good as Louise’s original recipe.
He also notes that in an industry famous for its turnover, Duff’s employees stayed on, becoming “a close-knit group of family and friends that has lasted for generations.” It wasn’t all about Joe. It was also about the team he cared about and surrounded himself with, including his wife Carol, who ran the front of the house.
Here’s something else that set Duff’s apart, their warning to customers: “Medium Is Hot.” It’s a line that should be as famous as their famous wings.
In three words, it expresses everything you need to know about Duff’s. They are unique, and proud of it. They are for people who crave the real deal, the pop others cannot handle. And they are smart, creating an memorable slogan promising a burning mouth and generating word-of-mouth.
Ninety-nine out of 100 American companies would have killed that line instantly. “It’s polarizing.” “It excludes people who prefer mild.” “It’s confusing, how can medium be hot?” But Duff’s deeply, completely, and resolutely understood wings and their customers.
Family businesses are like that. The knowledge gets passed down from generation to generation. In addition to expressing his love and gratitude for his father, that’s what Joe Duff is doing in his essay. Celebrating his father and mother’s remarkable achievement. Codifying every hard-earned step. And making sure what it took to make it happen, like Ron himself, is never forgotten.