Buffalo Wild Wings and the triumph of the chicken wing
Nick Teodori leans forward on the edge of his bar stool and decides to go for it.
"Do you know the rules?" asks the waitress, a tiny girl with a black ponytail. "No napkins. No blue cheese. No dairy. No water."
The waitress fetches a legal waiver and ballpoint pen. The document spells out the risks, but Teodori doesn't read a word. He signs with a flourish.
"Attention, Buffalo guests!" announces a booming voice. "We have a gentleman over here attempting our Blazin' Challenge!"
The diners erupt into hoots and whistles as the MC counts down: "Five...four... three...two...one!"
Teodori grips the first wing and lifts it to his lips. The searing scent of chili pepper burns before it even touches the lips.
Sweat beads on his forehead, but Teodori doesn't stop to wipe his brow. Bright orange sauce paints his face like a clown. His hands look like a slaughterhouse.
"Fifteen seconds left to go," the MC warns.
Time running out, Teodori strips the meat off the bone and drops it into the mass grave with eight seconds to spare.
"He did it!" the waiter announces. "Just under two minutes, at 1:52!"
The diners, looking for any reason to celebrate, lift their beers in salute.
It's Tuesday night at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Station 19 in Dinkytown. Across the country, at 732 restaurants just like this, the scene is being repeated by intrepid diners. Thousands have risked their digestive tracks to attempt the Blazin' Challenge. They didn't do it for the free T-shirt, or the Polaroid photo on the restaurant wall. They did it for the glory.
"It's a little bit of a clubhouse," says Allan Hickok, the Twin Cities' most prominent restaurant consultant. "They've got almost a $1 billion market cap, and what do they sell? They sell chicken wings."
FOUR DECADES AGO, Americans hardly touched chicken wings—the poultry industry sent the unwanted part abroad to less-finicky consumers, says Andrew F. Smith, food historian.
Yet today, the Buffalo wing is a staple at every good sports bar. Collectively, Americans will consume 13.5 billion chicken wings this year, according to the National Chicken Council—or about 43 wings per person.
"These little parts, they were almost like a throwaway item," says Tim Delaney, a sociologist at the State University of New York, Oswego. "To turn them into a commodity item is really a fascinating tale."
In 2009, for the first time in history, the wholesale price of chicken wings surpassed that of skinless boneless breasts, traditionally the priciest part of the bird. Buffalo Wild Wings now offers boneless wings made of breast meat in a move designed in part to hedge against price-gouging by wing suppliers.
There's no shortage of buyers, with several chains competing to be the McDonald's of the newly emerging food sector. After Buffalo Wild Wings, the next fastest-growing company in the pecking order is Texas-based Wingstop, with 475 outlets in 30 states, plus Mexico. There's also Wing Street (a sister company to Pizza Hut), Wing Zone, World of Wings Café and Wingery, Wings to Go, and Buffalo Wings N Rings.
"The whole Buffalo wing phenomenon took off some years ago," says the chicken council's Richard Lobb. "And it really has shown no signs of slowing down."
IT ALL STARTED with an Italian mother at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York.
"She didn't wake up one morning and say, 'I'm going to create wings,'" says Ivano Toscani, who now owns the Anchor Bar. "It just happened."
On that now-famous morning in 1964, Teressa Bellissimo received an extra-meaty shipment of wings at the Italian restaurant she ran with her husband Frank. They looked too plump to dump in the stockpot, so she set them aside for later.
The next day, her son Dominic was tending the bar when a bunch of his friends came by. Dominic asked his mother to make them something to eat that wasn't on the menu. Teressa's mind drifted to those meaty chicken wings.
She cut off the tips, sliced the flats from the drumettes, and deep-fried the wings, then topped them with a concoction of melted butter, cayenne pepper, and red-hot sauce. She dished up sides of blue cheese, sliced up celery, and brought out the newly invented snacks.
"Mother, what are those things?" Dominic asked.
"Chicken wings," Teressa replied.
The wings were an instant hit. Once they were added to the menu, they really took off—now the bar sells 2,000 pounds of Buffalo wings a day.
Within five years, a tavern across town copied Teressa's famous wings. Duff's had been around for a quarter-century, but it wasn't until Louise Duffney fried up her first batch of wings that the place really began to gain a name for itself.
Before long, Buffalo-style wings began to spread across New York and down the East Coast. When they moved, Buffalonians took their wings with them, to Paco's Tacos in Boston, and to a bevy of one-offs in south Florida, where snowbirds from upstate New York found respite from the winter cold.
In 1975, one of those snowbirds founded the nation's first wing chain. Edmund J. Hauck spread Wings N Curls from Florida to Indiana and California. As he built his empire, Hauck added a new twist: In addition to the traditional cayenne-hot-pepper-and-butter, Hauck dipped his wings in several other flavors of sauce.
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.
"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."
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.
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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