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Before dawn on March Madness Sweeta€?16 game day, a semitrailer trundles up to an unmarked door in a strip mall in Germantown, Wis.
Kyle Turner, a husky prep cook in a black-and-yellow Wild Wings T-shirt and cap, dumps six freshly fried wings into a plastic pail labeled Parmesan Garlic. The sauced wings are piled onto a tray alongside celery, dressings, and fried cheese curds. The casual-dining industry, characterized by table service and moderate prices, scraped out sales growth of 2a€?percent last year, according to NPD Group. The formula is evident in the company's newest restaurants, which have been rolled out across the country over the past two years.
There are trivia games and wing-eating contests for adults, video games on tablets for kids. Smith, a 57-year-old accountant whoa€™s partial to spicy garlic wings, has run Buffalo Wild Wings for almost 20 years. During a tour of a new location in Edina, Minn., near the company headquarters, Smith explains how the buffalo logo laser-etched onto the companya€™s a€?nucleateda€? glasses helps sustain a foamy beer head. As she cleaned up the books and ditched the shipping operation, Smith often wondered what shea€™d gotten herself into.
The restaurants focused on sports as younger clientele came to watch cable and satellite channels they couldn't afford at home. Then the recession hit, pushing most casual-dining restaurants into a slump from which few have emerged with any real vigor.
Commodity wing prices are often the first thing analysts ask about on Wild Wingsa€™ earnings conference calls.
Perhaps Wild Wingsa€™ toughest challenge is attracting customers when the sports calendar is thin. Last August, Wild Wings launched GameBreak, an app for fantasy football and other games that can be played inside or outside the restaurants.
A new layout meant to make the restaurants feel like miniature stadiums should help all parts of the day, Smith says. Ita€™s too early to tell if the new restaurants will be worth the investment, though Smith says so far theya€™re meeting her expectations. Late in the second half of the Wisconsin-Carolina game, Glover and his colleagues are still shaking sauce pails, and waitresses wearing red beads and Badger temporary tattoos on their faces are hustling trays of food and drinks. Paul Tews and his pal Steve Schraufnagel have been at their bar stools since an hour before tipoff. My youngest daughter and I went to an early screening of The Secret of the Wings (Disney Studios) earlier in the month. In The Secret of the Wings, Tinkerbell heads into the Winter Woods even though she’s forbidden to. The two main characters are voiced by Mae Whitman (Tinker Bell) and Lucy Hale (Periwinkle). He pivots right, pumps an ounce of sauce into the pail, slaps on a lid, swivels left, shakes the pail with both hands, sets the lid aside, and then drops the wings into a cardboard carton.
Eight minutes after the order came in, waitress Alyssa Kark carries it out into a sea of cheering Badger fans.
Wisconsin beat North Carolina, then knocked off the undefeated University of Kentucky in an epic Final Four game, earning a title shot against Duke in Monday nighta€™s championship. Chief Executive Officer Sally Smith says she thinks therea€™s room for an additional 600 in North America, especially on the coasts. Wings are about $1 apiece and available in an almost comical number of varieties: boneless or boned, with five dry seasonings and 17 sauces with names like Jammin' JalapeA±o and Thai Curry arrayed on a heat scale. The high ceilings and blonde finishes upend the dank-and-dark stereotype of the sports bar.
She tells a manager ita€™s time to consider using IV-style bags to get sauce into the shaking pails.


When Smith joined as CFO in 1994, Wild Wings had about 30a€?locations, no financial statements, and no computers. The sit-down operations couldna€™t compete with McDonalda€™s and Burger King on price, and a rising breed of fast-casual alternatives such as Chipotle and Panera Bread lured away millennials with fresh dishes, lower prices, and speedier service. On the morning before the Sweeta€?16 contest, the restauranta€™s general manager, Jillian Cabanatuan, gathers 16a€?workers into a pregame huddle. The company sold more than 100 million chicken wings during this yeara€™s tournament, easily topping the 94 million sold last year. Producers decide how many birds go to market depending on demand, rainfall, feed costs, and whether foreign customers are limiting U.S. Viewers will then begin seeing a non-NCAA commercial starring William Zabka, who played the tow-headed bully in The Karate Kid. If the company wants to hit its own goal of doubling average store sales in 10a€?years, it cana€™t rely solely on new locations.
Since 2013, Wild Wings and its franchisees have spent more than $200 million building 118 of these "stadia" restaurants, including the one in Germantown.
By nighta€™s end, the Germantown B-Dubs will have sold 8,500 wings, a bit less than half the morninga€™s delivery.
Most of the kids who were mugging for photos with Blazina€™ Bill, B-Dubsa€™ buffalo-headed mascot, have left with their parents.
They arrived in Wisconsin red, ate a pile of wings, lost some free raffles for gift cards, and watched guys with sauce-slicked faces compete in a wing-eating contest. With 6:08 to go, Wisconsin point guard Zak Showalter, who played for Germantown High, makes a layup to put the Badgers ahead. Tinkerbell and her friends are warm fairies, while Periwinkle and her friends are winter fairies. The Secret of the Wings also features former James Bond actor Timothy Dalton (Lord Milori), Megan Hilty (Rosetta), Anjelica Huston (Queen Clarion), Matt Lanter (Sled), Jesse McCartney (Terence), Lucy Liu (Silvermist), Raven-Symoné (Iridessa), Debby Ryan (Spike), Pamela Adlon (Vidia), Angela Bartys (Fawn), Jeff Bennett (Clank), Grey DeLisle (Gliss), and Jane Horrocks (Fairy Mary). Seventeen hours later, with the Wisconsin Badgers fighting from behind against the North Carolina Tar Heels, the wings are flying from a storage room cooled to 28F into a cramped kitchen where a dozen cooks jostle amid shouted orders, sizzling grease, and the occasional shrieks of an alarm urging them to move faster. Kark squeezes past the two-deep throng at the bar and sets her tray before three Wisconsinites gazing up at a television nearly as big as a garage door. But the biggest winner might be Buffalo Wild Wings, whose a€?Wings Beer Sportsa€? motto has been a recipe for victory in the restaurant industry. Even after raising prices last fall to offset the surging cost of chicken wings, sales were up more than 11a€?percent in January.
The company has more than 20a€?outlets in Canada, Mexico, and the Philippines and plans to keep expanding abroad. She explains how her research into competing chains made her decide that none of her restaurants would pay more than 13.1a€?percent of revenue for rent and depreciation.
Yet Wild Wingsa€™ growth actually increased during the downturn, partly because it emphasized more than food. Moving that many wings is nowhere near as economical as it was a decade ago, before chicken-wing prices became exceptionally volatile. Until now, the price has been determined by the average daily price for the prior month as reported by Urner Barry, a commodities markets news service. The ads star Steve Rannazzisi, from the FX comedy The League, who cracks wise about the excitement and trivia games (sample question: a€?How did the term a€?bandwagona€™ originate?a€?) of Buffalo Wild Wings. Ita€™s part of a summer push to draw people in for less-popular sports like skate-boarding and rugby. Monitors overhead flash orders from the 20a€?waiters and bartenders working tonight at Buffalo Wild Wings. Next to Turner, fellow a€?shakera€? Brian Glover spins a pail marked Asian Zing with one hand, no top on the pail. Last year it bought stakes in emerging fast-casual chains PizzaRev and Rusty Taco, which Smith describes as a€?little betsa€? for when the Buffalo Wild Wings expansion tapers off at home.


Most people dona€™t need to leave home to watch their favorite team on a state-of-the-art TV. By the time its first national ad ran on ESPN in 2006, the chain had 400-plus locations and was adding 50 to 60 a year. While TV spots for Chilia€™s and Applebeea€™s touted tumbling salads and juicy steaks at cut-rate prices, goofy B-Dubs ads suggested it would keep the sports revelry going by secretly manipulating game outcomes. Producers in the past decade have been growing plumper birds to take advantage of lower feed costs.
A new arrangement with suppliers, starting on Aprila€?15, will set a ceiling and a floor on prices. In one spot, Rannazzisi eats a wing while warning against DVRa€™ing games, because if they go into overtimea€¦. Wild Wings will need that traffic to approach summer 2014 sales, which were boosted by World Cup soccer. The seating area is arranged around a U-shaped central bar, which is moved away from the wall and has huge TVs hanging overhead. But the chain appeals to customers across a wide band, from pub-loving sports nuts to families looking for a cheap night out. In addition to Wisconsin-North Carolina, customers will be coming for a€?Boneless Thursdaya€? discounted wings. Smith, while declining to specify the range, says the company and its suppliers will share the pain or benefit when wing prices move outside of it. In fact, my daughter told me afterwards to buy the DVD so her sister and brothers could watch the movie. They are happy to discover they are twins, but unfortunately they are not allow to be together. On the other hand, the land outside of the Winter Woods is too warm for Periwinkle and could cause her wings to wilt. Profits last year rose 31 percent and the stock has jumped by 45 percent since mid-October.
Department of Agriculture chart showing wing prices for the past five years resembles a roller coaster, climbing and diving by as much as a buck a pound, hitting bottom at about 76A? in 2011 and topping out at $2.04 in 2013. Plus, lunchtime alcohol sales are low and there arena€™t many sports events that time of day to draw fans.
Tinkerbell is forbidden to be in the Winter Woods, and Periwinkle isn’t allow to leave the Winter Woods.
A year ago, Wild Wings was paying $1.36 a pound for traditional boned wings, including freight and handling charges. Wild Wings responded by changing its menu from per-piece servings to four order sizes: snack, small, medium, and large. The company is introducing a simplified menu of dishes that can be prepared faster, including a taco-like chicken a€?buffalitoa€? and a prime rib sandwich, and ita€™s training employees to deliver faster during the afternoon. Local touches also help, such as the framed blue-and-gold Germantown High School jerseys hanging on the walls. Managing the volatility is crucial, because boned wings account for about a quarter of Wild Wingsa€™ costs.
Wild Wings has already raised prices to offset increasing costs and has said it will do so again this year.
The company buys its boneless meat on long-term contracts; boned wings are purchased on rolling arrangements under which prices change monthly.



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