Buffalo Wild Wings and the triumph of the chicken wing

How a regional delicacy took over fast casual dining

But the Buffalo wing really hit the cultural map in 1980, when Calvin Trillin, a writer for The New Yorker, traced the food's genesis in a piece for the magazine.

Suddenly, Buffalo wings were everywhere. Teressa Bellissimo cooked up a batch on the Today Show for Bryant Gumbel.

In 1983, Hooters made the Buffalo wing a staple of its menu. Hooters tweaked the original Buffalo recipe, coating wings in batter and frying them to a crisp before adding its own cayenne sauce. They also added waitresses in orange hot pants.

Anchor Bar, Buffalo, NY
courtesy of the Anchor Bar
Anchor Bar, Buffalo, NY
The original Buffalo Wild Wings (and Weck), Columbus, Ohio
courtesy of Buffalo Wild Wings
The original Buffalo Wild Wings (and Weck), Columbus, Ohio

"Hooters has a reputation for having very good wings," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the food-service research and consulting firm Technomic. "It's been very appealing—but more so to the male population."

By 1990, fast food outlets wanted a piece of the wing business. McDonald's Mighty Wings came deep-fried and spicy. Not to be outdone, Kentucky Fried Chicken got into the mix the following year, dishing out its own version, simply named the Hot Wing. Pizza chains were next to join in the craze: Domino's in 1994, Pizza Hut in 1995.

By 2001, Buffalo wings were a big enough deal to star in a Hollywood movie. In Osmosis Jones, Bill Murray plays a man training for the National Buffalo Wing Festival.

A fictional construct, the festival didn't really exist, but a year after the film's debut, a Buffalo resident named Drew Cerza decided to bring the Wing Festival to life. Now every Labor Day weekend, Cerza presides over the festival as his alter ego: the Wing King, a velvet-caped character who wears a giant foam chicken-wing hat. Thousands of people travel to Buffalo each year to celebrate.

The Buffalo wing had transcended lunch buffets and become something more akin to a lifestyle choice.

"And that's when you really start noticing that you have some traction," says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group. "It wasn't just an item on a menu, but restaurants became dedicated to the serving of just that food."

THE MAN BEST positioned to capitalize on the country's wing fixation makes for an unlikely champion for gluttonous eating. Jimmy Disbrow was a trim former figure skater who had been an alternate for the 1968 U.S. Olympic team.

In 1981, Disbrow traveled to Kent State University to judge an ice skating event. There he met up with his old friend Scott Lowery. The two wanted to eat some wings like they used to have at the Anchor Bar when they lived in Buffalo.

There was just one problem: No one served them.

So the friends decided to open a wing joint of their own.

Lowery, still a college senior, wrote a business plan for their new company. He earned an F, but that roadmap would become the multimillion-dollar company we know today as Buffalo Wild Wings.

In 1982, the two friends opened Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck in a dump of a warehouse just a few blocks off Ohio State University's campus. In addition to wings, they served Buffalo beef sandwiches on kimmelweck, a German roll, hence the third "W" in the restaurant's name.

From the beginning, the idea was to build a place to watch sports. Students christened their loud, chaotic hangout "BW-3" or "B-dubs" for short.

"If you look in a Buffalo Wild Wings, it's got more in common with the New York Stock Exchange than a restaurant," says John King, chief communications officer for Fallon advertising in Minneapolis, who keeps tabs on the chain. "It's an environment where everybody kind of wins."

Six months in, Disbrow and Lowery added a third partner: Ohio State freshman Mark Lutz, who dropped out of school and plowed his $25,000 tuition money into the new restaurant.

The partners worked furiously for ten years, opening six more locations in Ohio, Indiana, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where they liked to ski.

In 1991, they began franchising, mostly to former customers who thought hanging out at a replica of their favorite college bar was vastly preferable to growing up and getting a real job.

Then Disbrow's love life became an unexpected boon to his company. In 1992, Disbrow married Dede Hensel, of Minneapolis, an old flame from his figure-skating days.

Hensel's father, Ken Dahlberg, was a venture capitalist with an acute interest in his new son-in-law's company. Dahlberg paid a visit to the flagship restaurant in Columbus, making his way through the tiny seating area, the haphazard kitchen, and the cramped office upstairs.

"Can I see an income statement?" Dahlberg asked. "Can I see a profit and loss sheet?"

Disbrow pulled out his wallet and displayed its contents: about $38, according to Disbrow's stepson.

That wasn't going to do. Dahlberg became the company's most invested partner and brought aboard professional management, including Sally J. Smith as CFO.

Disbrow moved the company headquarters from Cincinnati to Minneapolis and, with the help of the new management, focused on expanding Buffalo Wild Wings' appeal beyond college jocks. After all, BW-3's original customers had grown up.

"They may have 5- or 10-year-old kids but still want to go to their old hangouts," Disbrow told Restaurants & Institutions magazine in 1995. "So now we're building into suburbia, the theory being that each year, we have a renewable group of customers—a new freshman class. The market keeps driving itself."

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