On the agenda of nearly every sports fan in the country, the chicken wing has literally become a national obsession — as American as football and apple pie, and as necessary as a big screen, good game and cold beer.
Enter Minneapolis, Minn.-based Buffalo Wild Wings® Inc., a unique restaurant and sports bar concept that features a variety of boldly flavored food items and plenty of wings, beer and sports. It’s a neighborhood destination with an energetic, social atmosphere, and is one of the top 10 fastest-growing restaurant chains in the country.
For all its successes, Buffalo Wild Wings has been named The National Provisioner’s 2008 Foodservice Operator of the Year.
“Buffalo Wild Wings was born out of a passion for its core product — Buffalo chicken wings,” says Sally Smith, president and chief executive officer. “Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery started the company in Columbus, Ohio, in 1982 when they couldn’t find the chicken wings they had grown to love in Buffalo, N.Y. They opened the first restaurant just outside The Ohio State University and grew the business to about 30 restaurants, primarily through franchising.”
While the concept was able to grow significantly, the founders eventually encountered challenges faced by many entrepreneurs as they expand.
In 1994, Smith came on board as chief financial officer and put in place the infrastructure needed to establish accounting, human-resources, and finance and marketing departments. In 1996, Smith was named chief executive officer and began to tackle the more challenging task of broadening the appeal of the chain by revising the name, redesigning the buildings, and moving from a college bar motif to a more family-friendly sports bar and grill. In order to further support its growth, Smith led the company through a successful initial public offering (IPO) in November 2003. The company now has no debt and a healthy
balance sheet, and it can self-finance its growth. In 2006, Buffalo Wild Wings launched its first national advertising campaign, having reached a size where a full, national campaign would be cost-effective.
In 2007, the company celebrated 25 successful years in business and was ranked No. 27 by Forbes in its list of the “200 Best Small Companies.” The 25th anniversary was marked by the grand opening of Buffalo Wild Wings’ new flagship restaurant in Columbus, Ohio — just down the street from the original location. The company is almost halfway to achieving its goal of having at least 1,000 restaurants across the country — a goal it aims to achieve by 2012.
“The company has really taken the popularity and success of chicken wings to a new level,” says Smith. And its innovative menu doesn’t end there, as the restaurant offers a wide variety of other menu items.
While the company has focused on creating a great experience for its guests, its marketing and promotions departments have done an excellent job of creating a distinct personality for the brand, including its current tagline, “You Have To Be Here™.”
“Our television and radio ads have an irreverent sense of humor that’s all about the fun atmosphere of a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant,” says Smith.

Promoting the brand

Buffalo Wild Wings’ unique concept has broad appeal with a very wide customer base, says Smith, though a key target for the company are males between the ages of 18 and 34.
“Really, we appeal to sports and wings lovers across the country that enjoy getting together with friends and family,” Smith says.
When it comes to the food, it’s all about the sauce, says Kathy Benning, senior vice president of marketing and brand development.
“We offer 14 signature sauces ranging from Mild to Blazin’® for our wings, sandwiches, wraps and salads,” she says. And the brand is all about keeping its restaurants focused on “wowing” the guest with an unforgettable experience.
“We want our guests to tell their friends ‘You Have to Be Here’ and keep them coming back for more,” says Benning. “Our restaurants are upbeat, friendly and filled with sports and entertainment.”
The company utilizes several support programs to promote its brand, Smith says.
“We work extremely hard to create strong marketing plans and develop ties with the local community to ensure successful openings and to ‘wow’ our guests with a great experience every time they come into Buffalo Wild Wings,” she explains. Buffalo Wild Wings’ national television and radio advertising, which the company began in 2006, has been very successful in building sales and raising brand awareness, Benning adds.
“We have agreements with ESPN and CBS Sports to advertise during key times of year, including March Madness and football season, which are both very big for us,” says Benning. “So providing media support in all of our markets during the start of March Madness and during football season is very important for us to drive sales.”
Benning says Buffalo Wild Wings’ new “Experience” TV commercials have really showcased its brand.
“They capture the camaraderie and fun, social atmosphere our guests experience in our restaurants every day. We’ve also had great success featuring our two signature promotions; Wing Tuesdays and Boneless Thursdays,” she says. “These two days have become more than just promotions — they are events in our restaurants.”
In addition, the company’s National Advertising Fund is focused on providing TV and radio advertising nationally, regionally and locally, in addition to online and all of its in-house point-ofpurchase, adds Benning.
“We also continually look for new and unique ways to engage our guests with our brand, including an industry-leading text-messaging campaign we just executed to support our Wing Tuesday and Boneless Thursday promotions,” she says. “Our wings are our No. 1 product, of course.”
According to Benning, wings make up 36 percent of Buffalo Wild Wings’ total sales (24 percent are bone-in and 12 percent are boneless wings). The company continually evaluates its 14 sauces to see which are selling well, and tests new ones to see what new flavors customers crave.
“Many of our tests result in limited-time offers to see how the new flavors will sell and then hopefully move on to our menu,” she says.

Growing potential

When it comes to a strategy for expanding Buffalo Wild Wings’ market share, Smith says the company is focused on growing to more than 1,000 units across the United States, and, Benning adds, it is always actively looking at potential new markets and territories to enter.
“We have very enthusiastic, successful franchisees who continue to deliver on and expand their franchise agreements, which plays a large role in fueling our growth,” Benning says. “We continually look at optimizing the build out of existing territories and search for new territories — such as California and the West Coast.”
There are challenges in every business, says Smith, adding that entering a new market where its brand is not well-known can be difficult.
“We also need to maintain the highest level of operations in each of our restaurants. We need to provide great service, great food, good value and a great experience for every guest that comes into Buffalo Wild Wings,” says Smith. “This combination gives us the highest potential for long-term success.”
Smith says ensuring Buffalo Wild Wings continues to create passion for its brand is one of the most important factors in the company’s continued growth.
“We have to consistently provide our guests with an experience they enjoy so they continue to return often and tell their friends about it along the way,” she says. “We are focused on impressing our guests with the value they receive at Buffalo Wild Wings and the experiences they have from the minute they step foot into one of our restaurants. If we can continue to do this, our guests will continue to support our growth.”
Buffalo Wild Wings’ mission is to “wow” people every day, says Smith, adding that a big part of that is wowing the communities in which they do business.
“We strive to practice good citizenship and help make our communities a better place to live, work and grow,” she says.
A combination of all those efforts and successes has elevated Buffalo Wild Wings’ "wow factor" significantly and put it on a fast track to further success.