Web Exclusive | September 2017 | By Bryan Reesman

Hurricane Dives Into The Fast Casual Wing Wars

The brand has plans to open more than 100 counter-service locations in the next few years.
Hurricane Grill & Wings is the latest full-service wings chain to spin off a fast-casual brand. Hurricane Grill & Wings
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Wings have become increasingly popular but increasingly pricey. Hurricane Grill & Wings locations have performed well in the full-service world and are now expanding into fast casual through its Hurricane BTW brand, which, like its parent company, will expand beyond chicken. The BTW, naturally, stands for burgers, tacos, and wings.

The prototype location in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has tested well over its first 18 months, and now 15 BTW units are on the Hurricane development board and scheduled to open over the next year, with more than 100 planned for the not-so-distant future. They will predominately be based in Florida but some will emerge in Illinois, New Jersey, and South Carolina. Franchises are in the beginning stages in other states as well.

Brooksy Smith, chief brand officer for Hurricane AMT and president of Hurricane BTW, says there are four factors that inspired his company’s move into the fast casual sector. Firstly, younger consumers in particular are choosing the format “as a matter of preference not just a convenience.” Also, the cost of prime location space has risen dramatically for restaurateurs over the last 20 years, and through “the fast casual footprint you can minimize that escalation in real estate costs.”

Further, he feels the new impetus on take-out delivery, whether via customer take out or third-party services, has boosted the fast casual model. And many states have changed labor compensation rules from tip-based server revenue to a higher base salary. Increased labor costs have encouraged rising interest in the fast casual format in some states.

Two Hurricane competitors are also entering the fast casual game. As reported this past June, Buffalo Wild Wings went back to its counter-service roots by opening two pilot stores for its B-Dubs Express brand in the Minneapolis metro market over the summer. B-Dubs Express features its parent company's signature wings but in a counter-service format suited to takeout and at-home business. Similarly, the revitalized Quaker State & Lube will be launching its fast casual model Lube Express later this fall.

The concept for Hurricane BTW invokes the idea of Chili’s, a full-serve environment where people can also meet up casually after work for drinks and appetizers. Smith appreciates the comparison. He says he went to high school in Dallas, and the first Chili's was located down the street from his father’s office at the corner of Meadow and Greenville. He recalls that first Chili’s unit had a dining area on one side and a bar with mainly beer on the other.

“That original Chili's is a lot like the vibe that we want to happen in a BTW,” Smith says. “The food is very much the same. Heck, the chicken BLT taco that we serve at BTW is a riff off the original soft chicken taco that very first Chili's made back in 1983. [BTW] is fast casual in terms of how you order your food, but we do have good quality local craft beers in there and we do try to provide some of the things that you didn't typically see in quick service.” Those things include a comfortable setting with good access to WiFi, TVs in the background, along with a few appetizers and good beer.

“You can bring the kids’ baseball team in, and the dads and moms can drink beer while they eat,” Smith says.

Hurricane BTW wants to keep the average ticket price at $10 per guest. “We feel that that's an important point because as you look at some of the single items at fast casuals that have grown in the past 10 years, you see that a lot have had price increases,” Smith says. “I was in a fast casual burger chain a week ago, and for the standard burger, fries, and a soft drink it was just under $15. It's hard to do that very often.”

Smith admits that wings are very expensive and that they are historically high in price. Hurricane knows it has to be competitive in its pricing, but Smith also makes a distinction. “You have to decide first of all if you're going to be a price leader or a quality leader in the world of wings,” he says. “We have always been a quality leader, so we're going to maintain our quality advantage over others. If you decide you're going to be a quality leader, you have to charge a reasonable price for your product.”

Beyond wings, Hurricane BTW will also offer a product mix that includes burgers and tacos. “Even on the Hurricane Grill side we sell lots of things besides wings,” Smith adds. “A year ago we started innovating and testing other products that are not wings that we feel are on-brand and still deliver the kind of guest experience and high flavor profile that our customers expect from us. As wing prices move up, they’ve got other options on the menu that we hope they will choose first. They're premium wing customers, and we sell premium wings. Additionally, we like many others have worked a lot this year to improve the quality of our boneless products, which we have. We'll maintain better prices on our boneless products just because it costs us less and is easier for us to keep those prices down.”

The next Hurricane BTW location to open will be in West Palm Beach, Florida, in October. It will be followed by units in Woodland Park, New Jersey, Skokie, Illinois, and Gainesville, Florida. The success of the original prototype has emboldened Hurricane to expand its fast casual offshoot at a healthy pace. Its original BTW location, Smith says, “is doing exactly what we hoped it would do in terms of giving us a platform to prove the concept, work out the recipes, work out the pricing, and work with our guests so that we could go to market around the country with something that we feel is compelling.”