Buffalo Wild Wings and the triumph of the chicken wing

How a regional delicacy took over fast casual dining


SMITH SPENT HER first year as CFO untangling the company's finances. It turned out that the chain now consisted of 32 franchises, eight company-owned restaurants, and 500 employees, yet it was still paying its vendors using Quicken personal finance.

Worse, the IRS was auditing the books because the partners had neglected to file a tax return for two years running.

Jimmy Disbrow, founder of Buffalo Wild Wings; and Sally J. Smith, current CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings
Jimmy Disbrow, founder of Buffalo Wild Wings; and Sally J. Smith, current CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings
At the Dinkytown BWW
Kris Drake
At the Dinkytown BWW

It took Smith a year to sort out the mess. She did such a good job that in 1996, Disbrow stepped onto the board as chairman so that Smith could take his place as CEO.

Smith and her team of executives—almost all of them women—maneuvered the chain through a series of clever business steps that allowed it to grow rapidly.

First, they standardized the restaurant names under the tonier banner of Buffalo Wild Wings Bar & Grill. Next they discontinued the practice of franchising to recent college grads without a clue how to run a business.

"Sally was very smart about franchisee selection," says Hickok, the restaurant consultant. "I think she has a healthy group of franchisees because she's been pretty disciplined."

As the wing empire expanded, it also softened its image, adding table service to its former counter-only style. Smith added female-friendly items to the menu, like salads and boneless wings that could be eaten with utensils.

These changes could have alienated core customers, but the company struck just the right balance.

"They had to go beyond just college students to get the kind of growth that we've seen," says Mark Smith, a leisure and lifestyle analyst for Feltl and Company in Minneapolis. "I think it's really a testament to the management team in how successfully they've been able to do it."

Under Smith's leadership, the company launched its first national advertising campaign. Periscope, an advertising firm in Minneapolis, created posters branding each of the company's 12 sauces with a top reflective of its flavor: In the ads, the Blazin' Sauce was capped by a blowtorch, while the Mild Sauce had a baby bottle nipple.

"They were all funny and cool, and people used to want to buy them, and steal them," says Charlie Callahan of Periscope, who managed the project.

In 1998, Disbrow was diagnosed with brain cancer and given just nine months to live. He beat expectations and lived four and a half more years. At the end of his life, he marveled at how his once humble company had grown into a national phenomenon.

Buffalo Wild Wings is now one of the fastest-growing companies in the nation, with sales of $1.5 billion in 2009, and stock now trading at $52 per share.

"From what started as two inebriated guys in a Kent State bar," says Carl Hensel, Disbrow's stepson, "now, the company is selling like 10 million chicken wings a week."


BY 9 P.M. on a recent weeknight, the Buffalo Wild Wings in Dinkytown is as loud as a frat party. At a nearby table, four girls in jeans flirt with a dark-haired guy in a North Face fleece.

"It's my birthday," the prettiest of the girls, a blonde in a low-cut top, tells the man. "I think you should buy me a drink."

Just two months after opening, Buffalo Wild Wings is already a social hub for U of M students. Because of its place on the social graph, Buffalo Wild Wings may have one of the highest repeat-visit ratios of any restaurant.

"It's an interesting question: How many times does their core customer frequent Buffalo Wild Wings per month?" says Hickok, the restaurant guru. "My guess is it's very high."

The chain faces many challenges—among them the rising price of chicken wings—but Buffalo Wild Wings is hardly shrinking from them. This year, the company plans to add 95 new restaurants, including its first international expansion in Toronto, Canada. Ultimately, the goal is 1,400 Buffalo Wild Wings dotted across North America.

"You can get wings so many places," says Tristano, the food service researcher. "Buffalo Wild Wings' sustained growth over time would indicate that their appeal is beyond just the chicken wing."

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