When a brand like Wing Zone has been around for 25 years it takes innovation and creativity for it to stay relevant. Over the last two and a half decades Wing Zone’s value and menu innovation have driven growth both domestically and internationally and there are no signs it’s slowing down any time soon.
Wing Zone cofounder and CEO Matt Friedman talked with QSR about the markets the company will be breaking into and developing in 2019 and how a broader menu—including quesadillas, burgers, sandwiches, and wraps—will attract a more dynamic group of guests to visit a Wing Zone.
What does it mean to reach a milestone of 25 years a brand?
It means a lot to me, our franchisees, and for the brand. Wing Zone has remained true to its model of serving the very best quality and continuing to evolve the menu, technology, and adapt to the ever-changing landscape of franchising. I look back to when we started Wing Zone back in 1993 and it feels like it was just yesterday. The passion and drive is still there and I feel we have so much more to do and grow. Most founders on concepts exit at some point, typically early on, but I love what I do and being part of our history and future growth.
Would you say the wing category has become more competitive in recent years? If yes, how is Wing Zone setting itself apart from other brands?
Wings have become a main menu item and the popularity continues to grow. I look at my 17-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter and their generation has grown up with wings as a mainstay. Of course, there is added competition, but Wing Zone has remained core to its roots with our focus being a takeout/delivery franchise and knowing what we are great at. We love our position in the marketplace and food consumed/delivered off premises is booming. People are busier than ever and demand convenience and that is what we strive to deliver every day.
How has the menu evolved over the past 25 years? What are some of the best-selling menu items? Can you tell me more about the chicken rib product? When do you expect it launch?
Our original menu had original (bone-in) wings, five flavors/sauces, fries, and soft drinks. We now have 17 flavors, salads, burgers, tenders, and even vegetarian options like quesadillas, wraps, black bean burgers, and grilled cheese. The reality for us is that we must cater to a larger audience and a diverse customer with regard to taste and diet. I am a visionary. We are always looking for the next trend in menu and innovation. The chicken rib is something we have been working on for over a year and it has the potential to be the next chicken wing or boneless wing. It has an amazing taste and fits our menu and flavor profile. We are planning our launch in July 2019 and we are so excited.
New flavors are always on our radar and we typically launch two new LTO flavors each year. At Wing Zone, we are all about flavor. Our newest additions are a Ragin Cajun and Buffalo Ranch. Last fall, we introduced a Korean BBQ which was a huge success.
Why are you moving toward creating more sauces and dressings in house? Why does it matter to make more menu items in house instead of sourcing them from a supplier?
We developed an in-house bleu cheese and ranch dressing that is best in class. We have been testing for several months and the feedback has been exceptional. We are moving toward a more authentic menu where we are hand-breading our own tenders and boneless wings, doing a fresh cut wedge fry, and making our own dressings. There is a cost savings for our franchisees but more importantly it is a better product for our customers.
What's next for the brand and for you both?
Growth in target U.S. markets and international expansion, menu innovation, third-party delivery integration, and listening to our customers and franchisees. I am passionate about being the leader and spokesperson for Wing Zone. I love the restaurant business but more so working with new and legacy franchisees to help them grow their business. There is so much opportunity for growth both domestically and internationally.
What was the best (and probably toughest) lesson to learn over these past 25 years in business?
Focus and discipline. Not sure we had that for many years, but my message to our internal team and our franchisees always starts with these two words. There are going to be challenging times in any brand’s life and small tweaks are necessary, but radical changes need to be vetted and tested thoroughly. We are a better franchise company and I am a better leader because of our challenges. We are focused on growth and franchisee profitability and we are disciplined to stay the course on Wing Zone and what we are all about.
When it comes to domestic expansion why are you targeting North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama? Do you have any other markets you’ll be developing in 2019 or over the next few years?
We want to grow closer to home in order to provide the best support for our franchisees in these markets. It also has a positive impact on marketing co-ops and brand recognition. We have many successful, high volume and profitable restaurants in these three keys states and there is limited competition for Wing Zone in these three core states. Other favorable factors are moderate real estate and construction costs, lower wage/pay demands due to reasonable cost of living, and brand recognition for us. Our growth in these three states are a combined 12 new restaurants in 2019, 16 new restaurants in 2020, and 20 new restaurants in 2021. We will grow with existing and new franchisees in these areas. Our growth domestically is focused around nine core Southeastern states: Central Florida to Virginia and down to Louisiana and everything in between.