Ahhh, love – it is said, in order to receive it, one must be willing to share it. Hold love too tightly, it can be stifled, but if you give it -wings- and let it fly, love will always fly back to you. Such is the case with a married couple whose passion for food, fun and fellowship combined with a particular penchant in the preparation of chicken wings to result in a restaurant franchise that’s increasingly enamoring flocks of consumers in the southeast. For entrepreneurs winging their way among business opportunities, the model here has been proven to provide both wide and “wild” potential for further success.
Days before the playing of this year’s Super Bowl, national media sources broadcast alarmingly scandalous news that not only shook to the core of concerned sports fans, but much of the listening public who simply could not fathom how such a fiasco might occur. And no, this had nothing to do with Ray Lewis – this was much bigger than anything affiliated with the Baltimore Ravens. News reports tragically indicated the possibility of a shortage in the national supply of chicken wings. The disappointing implications rippled throughout the minds and stomachs of America. After all, what is Super Bowl without you and your homeys hashing it all out over a cold brew and platter or two (or three) of chicken wings? It may as well be another ho-hum game (English soccer for that matter-Ha!). Fortunately, the news reports seemed to have been over-exaggerated, yet there is no exaggerating the tie between chicken wings and football. According to the National Chicken Council’s 2013 Wing Report, (required reading for real aficionados) there were more than 1.23 billion wing portions consumed during Super Bowl weekend. That’s one weekend out of the year. Truth is, wings are appetizingly alluring as edible enhancements to any occasion throughout the year, and no one needs a national council’s research to realize that.
Diane and Cecil Crowley achieved that realization more than twenty years ago. As two admired advertising executives who lived in Atlanta, the Crowley’s routinely hosted Super Bowl parties, literally catering to hundreds of friends and professional colleagues. Beyond her professional marketing expertise, Diane was exceedingly talented as a cook. Over time, they began to notice that their friends, however gracious, were greedily consuming her concoctions and coming back for more, especially when it came to her flavored chicken wings. One must remember, in that particular era of epicurean enticement, chicken wings were still something of a novelty, or side line addition, not the main bill-of-fare, but in the Crowley home, guests simply couldn’t get enough of ‘em.
In 1990, the couple relocated to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Despite having absolutely no history, nor formal training in the restaurant industry, the two opened a small cafe where the essential course for consumption was Diane’s wildly wonderful chicken wings. This marked the beginning of the franchise known today as Wild Wing Cafe.
David Leonardo, Chief Development Officer for Wild Wing Cafe, explains that after the first one opened, it was soon “busting at the seams.” The popularity of the restaurant prompted the Crowleys to open another with larger space, and business at that one quickly took off too. They have since headquartered in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, and opened some 35 locations throughout the southeastern United States. A dozen are corporately owned while the rest are operated by franchisees. The menu may be the leading attraction, but Leonardo explains that the environment and atmosphere of Wild Wing has been a critical part of their appeal. He says the Crowleys are the consummate hosts, social, happy and highly accustomed to sharing a laugh or having fun with friends- it is organic to their DNA. So when they opened the cafe, Leonardo says, “They always wanted to have something different happening each night at the café… the goal was to have something going, something fun, entertaining… something that would make guests say, ‘I wonder what’s going on at Wild Wing tonight?’ and want to come back, again and again.”
So, this is something else diners can expect during a visit to Wild Wing Cafe. It can mean being greeted and served by staff in costumed attired, or kicking-it up on Karaoke nights, or listening to music performed live by a band. The music component has been an important part of the success of Wild Wing Cafe, and something that truly distinguishes it from other places. “You almost feel like the band element is dying out at a lot of clubs,” says Leonardo. “There’s a lot of places that just want to turn on the radio, or throw music out entirely, but we found customers still like to be entertained, they like live music. So it gives us an opportunity to showcase talent from young, up-and-coming bands, and we’re happy to do that. We don’t do it every day, but our food and quality, and the business we get from the lunch crowd has allowed us to bring bands in at night, and it has become integral to what we do.”
Those musical performances can come from well-known acts to those dreaming of making a name in the music industry. Last year, a girl who performed publically for the first time at Wild Wing Cafe went on to become one of the Top 5 finalists on American Idol. What’s more, before earning their Grammy Award for “Best New Artist,” the band known as Hootie & The Blowfish got their start by performing to the wing-crunching crowd at Wild Wing Cafe.
And though the music adds measures of merriment, Leonardo affirms that the menu is what really keeps people coming back. “You can’t have a successful business model if you only focus on good times. The fact that our sauces are homemade, that our chicken isn’t frozen, that our products are prepared fresh every day… this is what makes a difference. Quality food always brings people back to table. If it wasn’t for quality food the other components of business wouldn’t be able to sustain itself,” he says.
Quality People/Quality Practices
To the degree that Wild Wing Cafe has differentiated itself from the competition, Leonardo says similar emphasis has been made in differentiating a business model that can empower potential candidates to successfully operate their own franchise. He says the company is most interested in connecting with those who possess family values, who are interested in making a beneficial difference in the communities where they live, who understand and thrive on customer service, but not just in the sense of dining guests, but hired staff too. Leonardo explains that there can be as many 30 to 50 staff at each location, so candidates must be adept at working with teams, which sometimes include young people working at their first job.
Typical investment in the franchise, which is very dependent on size of location, can range from $800,000 to $1.5 million. But for that, franchisees are not left alone with merely a wing and a prayer for their success. The company has amassed a variety of tools, resources and systems to help further their success. In helping with site selection and build-out, Wild Wing Cafe relies on help from Colliers International who has an entire division dedicated to helping the franchisee with real estate needs. They also have a dedicated construction team that can help filter through contractors the franchisee may want to bring to the table. If one doesn’t want to buy and develop a property through their own means, Leonardo says he has a team that is ready to take that job, who in turn, will lease the building back to the franchisee. In any regard, he says the ultimate aim is to expedite the process as quickly and convenient for the franchisee. On the financing side, the company works with a firm known as BoeFly which facilitates a virtual lending marketplace comprised by more than 2,500 banks who compete for lending to the client.
Franchisees are also provided with training in every aspect of operations, which takes place in Charleston and also by a team that travels to the respective market where the business will open. Corporate also provides customized, “aggressive” marketing and advertising support weeks prior to opening, all tailored for the specific community, and makes use of television, radio, print and social media. The community advertising is complemented by ongoing national campaigns.
Operationally, Wild Wing Cafe has secured relationships with a range of professional distributors and suppliers, and as the company has grown, the buying power has resulted in opportunities to pass savings on to franchisees. “There are a lot of brands out there that lose sight of what it is to operate a restaurant, but we’re still operating our own restaurants every day. We feel what the franchisee feels, we understand the challenges they experience, and we all know the prices we’re paying. This allows us to talk strategically with one another and understand the big picture,” says Leonardo.
As for the future, Leonardo says the focus is further expansion in markets where Wild Wing Cafe is already roosted: South & North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas. He says the company is open to the idea of multiunit deals in other areas of the US, but he feels there are sufficient opportunities to further penetrate markets where they are currently established.
Last year, sales among the corporate owned locations respectively averaged to $3.5 million. Beyond the revenue, Wild Wing Cafe has consistently been recognized in the media, in practically every market, for not only the providing the best venue and best entertainment within their markets, but, of course, best tasting wings. Leonardo says part of the secret is in the sauce, in fact, they have more than 34 flavors of sauces, a number of which created by customers who may spend months preparing recipes for Wild Wing’s annual “Sauce Off” competition. Customer contributions have also led to new hamburgers or other dishes featured on the menu. The popularity of the sauce, which has some customers ordering it by the gallon to take home, has prompted the company to consider merchandising opportunities that are being evaluated now. Otherwise, Leonardo says Wild Wing Cafe is striving to bring value to the communities where they serve. In his perspective, “This isn’t fine dining, but we do this segment very well. When people want to go to a place and get great music, great food, a great beer, and have a great time with their family, they’re welcome to come here.”