Don’t call it a rebrand.
Instead, Wing Zone CEO and co-founder Matt Friedman prefers the term “pivot” to explain sweeping changes taking place at his brand these days. From all angles—operations, decor, menu, and methods—Wing Zone is in the midst of a significant facelift.
“I don’t know if we invented [calling it a pivot], but it’s not a rebrand,” he says. “You know what it is? For us it’s just a new focus.”
Wing Zone worked on this “pivot” for close to a year. In May, at the company’s franchise conference, it unveiled the future, and Friedman said 108-unit Wing Zone recently completed the process, although it will spend 12–18 months updating old stores.
At its essence, the pivot centered on simplifying Wing Zone’s business, so the brand could, as Friedman puts it, “own what we’re great at.”
This started with the menu. Wing Zone pared down its offerings, removing appetizers, some desserts, three of its 17 flavors, and setting up a kitchen where employees only have to cook 10 items.
“It first stemmed from the fact we felt like our menu had just gotten too broad,” Friedman says. “… You add an item here and there and it’s not a big deal. But you blink and three, four years later it’s like what happened?”
And after fighting it for many years, Wing Zone made the leap to jumbo wings. The chain ditched frozen products altogether and now cooks fresh wings across the U.S. Friedman says Wing Zong improved the consistency and taste profile of its boneless wings as well, and upgraded to a larger chicken tender.
In an effort to expand past fries, the brand added healthier sides, such as carrots and a side salad, and is also promoting house-made kettle chips.
But beyond that base, Friedman saw an issue with the way customers ordered in the first place. “We hated the combo play,” he says. “We felt it was fast food and that’s not what we are.”
Wing Zone’s a la carte menu is now designed so guests can combo up, or, in other terms, add sides or drinks to their order for a certain upsell.
“I don’t like nickel and diming customers. You get to pick your item and you can pick any side and drink and it’s one price,” Friedman says. “I think it affects everything. It affects online ordering and the ability for people to understand what we sell and easily order in the fastest amount of time. That’s true even when people come to our restaurants, or order on the phone. We want to make it easier.”
Wing Zone looked to reduce ticket times. It did so by four and half to five minutes, Friedman says, by developing a “par-cook” strategy. Wings are partially cooked ahead of time and finished when orders come in.
Packaging was also changed. Plastic bags and foam containers are gone. Wing Zone switched to paper and cardboard instead.
The stores themselves are becoming more focused as well. The new model is a 1,200-square-foot space with 24 seats—a drastic change from the 1,600–1,800-square-foot stores that seated 50–60 people. Four of those stores have been built in the past six months.
“I think we overbuilt our restaurants,” Friedman says. Given that off-premise accounts for 80 percent of Wing Zone’s business, the layout just didn’t fit.
“We like the idea of just being more efficient. It helps on rent. It helps on cost of build out. It helps on utility cost,” he says. “We’re not seeing any correlation between size of restaurants and average unit volumes. So why pay the extra cost of it?”
The smaller footprint comes with a reduced price tag of about $40,000, Friedman says. This keeps the investment sub-$300,000, which is where he wants the figure to stay.
“That’s an important thing because I don’t want Wing Zone to be, even though our unit volumes continue to grow and business is good, I don’t want to see us become a $400,000 investment or a $500,000 investment,” he says. “Because we have prided ourselves on making Wing Zone an affordable or reasonable franchising opportunity for people who are not millionaires.”
About 36 percent of the chain’s revenue is coming via online and Friedman says they’ve timed it where, if the transaction is cashless, a customer can get in and out in a minute or so. Along with the simplified and more efficient operations, the addition of a call-ahead VIP line has been key to boosting off-premise dining. USB ports and WiFi were included in the design to improve the waiting experience.
“We didn’t change our flavors. We only enhanced our product. The way we sell things. The way we combo it. We’ve really simplified our menu boards tremendously. They used to be a listing of everything. And now it’s like you come in and you clearly understand what we have,” Friedman says.
Friedman believes these moves will help Wing Zone thrive in its area of expertise: convenience. “You’ve got to be respectful of people’s time and you’ve got to be efficient,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that we’ve got to be fast food. It just means when people place an order, and if they’ve taken the time to place it in advance, make sure it’s ready, make sure it’s accurate, and that they’re in and out time is quick. That’s a critical piece.”