Wing chains reveal post-peak strategies

Staff Writer
Brands are staying in the game with sales- and traffic-building strategies to sustain their momentum beyond the first quarter

Peak-demand season for chicken wings and sports-theme restaurants may be over, but some of those brands are staying in the game with sales- and traffic-building strategies to sustain their momentum beyond the first quarter.

The first three months of the year is typically a heavy sales period for chains like Buffalo Wild Wings, Wingstop, Hooters, Wing Zone and The Tilted Kilt. The NFL playoffs and Super Bowl leading into college basketball’s March Madness tend to drive up restaurant guest counts and takeout orders during this time. But even without the traditional big-draw sporting events, these brands are moving into the spring and summer with promotional and menu strategies aimed at sustaining traffic and mitigating sky-high commodity prices for wings.

Wingstop: Hitting singles and doubles

Richardson, Texas-based Wingstop is coming off a first quarter in which it increased same-store sales by 10.5 percent. While pro football is the chain’s biggest draw, especially because of its partnership with former Dallas Cowboy Troy Aikman, Wingstop will apply the same marketing philosophy as pro basketball nears the postseason and Major League Baseball starts up, according to Andy Howard, the chain's chief marketing officer.

“We’ve got opportunities in a variety of sports,” Howard said. “The NBA playoffs go into the Finals in June, and a lot of that depends on who the teams are and where we have a heavy volume of stores. … We just hit a lot of singles and doubles. We don’t necessarily look for one big idea that will be the end-all, be-all.”

Wingstop introduced its new Louisiana Rub flavor in the fourth quarter and is still benefiting from the incremental traffic and interest it spurred, Howard added. The brand’s smartphone app has taken off as well, he said, now accounting for about five percent of Wingstop’s sales.

The chain’s executives are now concentrating on testing different pricing strategies to mitigate record-high chicken wing prices in the commodities market. “We’re changing around some combo meals, where we can still give a great value but for a better food cost to our operators,” explained Howard. “We’ll see sales and profits go up if we do this right. That should carry us through the rest of the year and beyond.”

Howard said the chain isn't currently advertising on national media but will likely start doing it again toward the end of the second quarter. The brand’s network of 13 regional advertising co-ops are currently maintaining steady local budgets, but will begin to incrementally increase their media budgets once their markets roll out new Coca-Cola Freestyle vending machines.

Wing Zone: Focusing on flavor

Atlanta-based Wing Zone also benefited during “wing season” from September through early April of this year, increasing systemwide same-store sales 9 percent in both the fourth quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, said Matt Friedman, the chain's cofounder and chief executive. But the brand wanted to maintain those volumes through the summer months rather than wait until next season, so it is aggressively promoting its new branding initiative, “Flavorholics Unite.”

Wing Zone involved its Facebook fans by having them vote to rename all 17 of its wing sauce flavors, Friedman said. Mild and hot sauces are now respectively called “Tame” and “Hot Shot,” and the teriyaki sauce was renamed “Tokyo Dragon.” The central part of the campaign is to let customers use any flavor in any menu item for no additional cost, boosting sales of burgers, sandwiches, salads and shrimp.

“Our wing purchases have remained the same, but we’re increasing sales of other items, which has a big impact on our same-store sales,” Friedman said. “We haven’t introduced any new products. We're just giving them a new focus, and it’s better for our daytime business and for driving repeat business.”

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