“People will start to look at the next opportunity in their life,” Friedman says. “I think that is where Wing Zone and franchising really plays well: ‘I’ve done well in my career and I’m ready to try something else.’ In a way, you’d be kind of crazy to leave your well-paid, stable career now. Why would you jump ship now?”
On the consumer front, he thinks the 85-unit chain remains well positioned. It’s affordable, and with a hearty pickup program, he thinks consumers will still flock to the brand during tough times. But he suspects price sensitivity may push them to think twice about luxuries like third-party delivery. A consumer can pick up 20 wings and a basket of fries for about $20. But that same order on a third-party platform, with its higher menu prices and added service fees, Friedman says, can cost more than $30.
“And I think people are going to start to say, ‘I could go get it and save $10. That’s real money,’” he says. “I think people are overspending for convenience right now.”
Wing Zone has been careful to limit the share of sales coming from third-party services to about 15 percent of the total pie. Friedman suspects those brands who have transitioned more of their business to third-party will have a hard time when the economy sours.
“I completely believe that those people who have made third-party a core part of their businesses are ultimately going to feel the pain,” he says, noting that Grubhub is already struggling with declining orders. “And we’re in a really good economy right now. If this thing goes south, I think that’s the first thing that’s going to go out.”
So far, the industry’s outlook on the economy remains mixed. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson told CNBC in late August that the coffee giant hadn’t seen any signs of economic weakness. But on a September earnings call, Darden CEO Gene Lee told investors that the company was seeing some softening even as U.S. wages and jobs experienced growth.
“I personally believe that there’s some uncertainty entering into the consumer, and it’s impacting their confidence,” Lee told investors.
That discordance is understandable. While national economic indicators like GDP and overall employment continue to grow, the rate of growth is slowing.
“It is and remains an overall positive environment,” says Hudson Riehle, SVP of the research and knowledge group at the National Restaurant Association. “But the economic expansion is now over a decade old, and it’s not surprising that the growth rates are moderating and will continue to moderate next year.”