Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar – known as B-Dubs to its loyal fans – was built on chicken wings, beer and TV sports. The food offerings have diversified since the first restaurant was opened in 1982, but chicken still dominates the menu as the company plans for continuing growth in its system.
“Our brand has grown and evolved, and our menu has expanded with it, but chicken is still at our core,” says Sally J. Smith, president and CEO.
Buffalo Wild Wings – traded on the NASDAQ as BWLD – has about 800 units nationwide, with more than 60 percent franchised. The plan is to grow to about 1,400 units in the United States, which allows for growth in currently underserved markets but will avoid cannibalization of existing units, according to Smith. The company has begun its international expansion with a store in Toronto, the first of perhaps 125 in Canada. Smith is talking to potential partners in the United Kingdom and the Middle East for overseas expansion and is open to adding brands.
“I set a target of 3,000 restaurants by 2020 worldwide, whether it’s Buffalo Wild Wings or some other concept,” she said at the National Chicken Council’s annual conference in October 2011.
Bone-in vs. boneless
Currently, the company sells nearly half a billion bone-in wings a year, a staple since Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery opened the first location in Columbus, Ohio, to bring Buffalo-style wings to the Midwest. In 2003, the company responded to consumer interest in an alternative to bone-in wings that could be eaten with a fork. The result was boneless wings; chunks of breast meat that are coated, cooked and sauced the same as bone-in wings.
Consumer preference is about even between the two products, with traditional wings accounting for 20 percent of sales and boneless wings at 19 percent. Smith says the company bought 70 million pounds of traditional wings and 35 million pounds of boneless wings in 2010. On average, each restaurant sells about 2,100 pounds of bone-in wings and 750 pounds of boneless each week, or 16,000 wings and 10,000 boneless wings. “That’s a lot of wings,” she says.
Boneless wings have to be fabricated, so Buffalo Wild Wings buys them on a contract basis. But the company is willing to take its chances on the market price for bone-in wings, Smith says. Sometimes that favors the company and sometimes it favors the supplier, she notes. The popularity of wings tends to make up for the fluctuations in wholesale prices, she says. Even when the company has to increase prices slightly to keep up with the market, “we have not seen a decrease in consumption.”
One problem with bone-in wings is that they are getting bigger. The company used to get 10 or 11 wings per pound but now gets eight or nine. That trend can involve adjustments for a chain that “buys by the pound and sells by the piece,” she adds.
Sixteen different flavors of sauce are currently on the menu, ranging in spiciness from not hot at all, such as teriyaki sauce, to Blazin’, which comes with the warning, “keep away from eyes, pets, children.” Four dry-rub seasonings are also available.
While 80 percent of patrons orders wings, the menu also includes burgers, shrimp, ribs, wraps and sandwiches. Most of the sandwiches and wraps are based on chicken. She adds that the chicken is usually bought fresh, not frozen.
“We prefer to use fresh because we think it makes a better product for our guests. The meat is tender and juicy, and the fresh wings seem to carry our sauce better, which is really what we’re known for, and why the guest comes in, because they have a special sauce that they want and they get this craving [for it].”
One exception: Super Bowl Sunday, when the company stocks up with frozen wings to meet the demand of the biggest day of the year, wing-wise.
Buffalo Wild Wings is essentially a sports bar, and every unit is equipped with large, flat-screen TVs allowing customers to keep up with their favorite sports and teams. The company stays in touch with its customers through a lively website and a Facebook page that is liked by more than six million people.
Smith feels that Buffalo Wild Wings is right in line with the public interest in more healthful eating. Menu items such as grilled chicken breast and Naked Tenders (chicken tenders grilled instead of breaded and fried) are lower in fat and calories than competing choices.
“The trend for continued development and continued consumption of chicken is strong,” she told National Chicken Council. “The nutritional benefits [include that] it’s lower in fat and calories, it’s a healthy option, healthier for you than most other meats, and it really adapts well to the flavor profile that consumers are looking for."
“The future looks wonderful,” she says.