In Lukewarm Industry, Chicken Wing Chains Stay Hot

Thanks to Low Price-Point, Spicy-Chicken Purveyors Outperforming Rivals; Football Season Brings More Gains

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It's football season. Pass the wings.

Even with relatively modest marketing spending, the product that was once a cast-off of little value is flying high. Not only are chicken-wing chains outperforming rivals in quick-service and casual-dining sectors, but prospects are strong for fall football season, when wing consumption over-indexes.

Troy Aikman, three-time Super Bowl champion, has been a spokesperson for Texas-based Wingstop since 2003.
Troy Aikman, three-time Super Bowl champion, has been a spokesperson for Texas-based Wingstop since 2003.
Consider that Buffalo Wild Wings alone sold more than 5.5 million wings during Super Bowl 2010, and the National Chicken Council estimated that more than 1.25 billion wings were consumed in that one weekend.

"Chains that focus on wings as their main menu item have done extremely well and have weathered the storm better than other restaurant chains," said Darren Tristano, exec VP at Technomic.

In casual dining, five wing-focused chains posted double-digit sales gains in 2009, according to Technomic, ranging from 12.5% at Wild Wing Café to 21.7% at Buffalo Wild Wings and 40% at Buffalo Wings & Rings. Only two of the seven chains it tracked declined in 2009: Hooters, down 4.9%, and Ker's Winghouse Bar & Grill, down 14.1%.

By comparison, Applebee's was down 2.1%, Chili's decreased 4.8%, Champps was down 6.2%, T.G.I. Friday's dropped 6.4%, and ESPN Zone fell 13.1%, according to Technomic.

Two quick-service wing winners were Wingstop, a then-433-unit chain based near Dallas, with a 20% jump in sales for 2009, and Wing Zone, an Atlanta-based chain with 65 units that bumped sales up 6.2%. By contrast, KFC sales dropped 5.8%, Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen was flat at 0.3%, and Church's Chicken was up 1.6% vs. 2008.

"Wings were not hit by the recession; a lot of it has to do with the price point," said Adam Scott, Wing Zone co-founder and chief financial officer. "When the economy got soft, higher-end restaurants got hit."

Wing Zone handles most of its marketing in-house, Mr. Scott said, but it also works with No Limit Media for PR and social media and Design Coup for graphic design and web development, creating templates for franchisees to use locally. With more than 450 locations nationwide, Wingstop uses cable year-round to reach national audiences plus quarterly direct-mail pieces, said CMO Andy Howard. Asher Media is Wingstop's media buyer. The chain was named the official wings of the Dallas Cowboys.

For its second quarter ended June 27, Buffalo Wild Wings posted revenue up 12.4% to $145.7 million, though same-store sales for the Minneapolis-based company were down slightly (-0.1% at company-owned and -0.7% at franchised locations). The chain has added 28 units this year, bringing the total to 680 locations in 44 states.

Buffalo Wild Wings for the second year is linking with ESPN "NFL Live" host Trey Wingo for an online fantasy-football league and inviting team captains in for draft parties. The chain works with Atlanta-based agency 22squared for its advertising, which includes digital and social media, and has nearly 2.5 million Facebook fans.

Buffalo Wings & Rings uses radio, direct mail, outdoor and in-store advertising and is starting a "huge push" into social media, according to CEO Roger David. The company works with Ohio agencies Hyperquake and Interbrand Design Forum to support marketing efforts and provides training and templates for franchisees to use on Facebook. Local BWR sites promote nightly specials such as Kids Eat Free and Ladies Night as well as upcoming sports events.

"Wings don't have a down season -- people love them year-round -- but we do have an up season," said Mr. Scott. "Super Bowl is hands-down our busiest day of the year, and most is takeout."

Pigskin and Chicken Wings

  • Troy Aikman, three-time Super Bowl champion, has been a spokesperson for Texas-based Wingstop since 2003.
  • Marlin Jackson was featured in a series of TV commercials for Pennsylvania-based Quaker Steak & Lube (35 units).
  • Wing Zone sold wings in quantities between 50 and 500 and had 100 wing orders during Super Bowl 2010, for a total of 750,000 wings sold.
  • Wingstop sold almost 5 million wings on Super Bowl Sunday alone.
  • Wing Zone's Honey Barbecue sauce is its top-seller, beating out Buffalo.
  • Cincinnati chain Buffalo Wings & Rings serves 45 sauce combinations, and customers choose their favorite flavors and the level of hotness for each one.
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