For 18 months, executives at Atlanta-based Wing Zone laid groundwork for the brand’s launch into international expansion. In November, they finally tasted the fruit of that labor when the first international Wing Zone unit opened in Panama.

Matt Friedman, founder and CEO of the chicken wing chain, says it’s safe to say the opening was a success.

“Our opening day of business we did $4,800, which is three times what we’ll normally do on an opening day,” he says. “Our expected first week of sales will be somewhere between $25,000–$30,000, which is pretty awesome.”

The new unit in Panama includes 1,700 square feet and 56 seats for dine-in customers—a first for the chain—as well as takeout and delivery capabilities. Wing Zone’s 15 signature wing flavors are all available, and Friedman says the new customers in Panama have reacted very positively.

“Our nature is to be fairly conservative, so we expected it to be more of a building process,” he says. “We would open up, we would do fairly well, and we would build off that. One of the things we thought we would have to do is educate people on the product and what we do. But people just kind of got it, and they got it quickly.

“At the opening in Panama, you never would have known we were in a recession in the United States,” Friedman says. “There were lines out the door and people were loving the experience.”

Owned by native Panamanian franchisees, the store was hyped on Facebook, Friedman says, but also through grassroots channels within the community.

“If we would have come in as owners from the U.S., I think it would have been completely different,” he says. “The fact that they’re local, they know their community, they were born and raised there—the networking that they knew was great.”

Friedman says opening the first international unit was a big learning curve, and that now that a unit is finally open overseas, a monkey is off the company’s collective back. The new store provides tangible evidence for prospective franchisees that an international Wing Zone can succeed, he says.

“It definitely is what we needed to jumpstart this, to expand a little bit more aggressively,” he says. “Internationally, we’ve got a lot of things going on right now. We’re under construction and opening in the Bahamas in January, which is exciting. We’ve signed deals in Japan, and we’ve got pending deals in a few other areas in Mexico and Central America.”

The company is also working on taking the brand to the U.K. and South America, Friedman says.

Wing Zone’s international expansion coincided with the economic woes in the U.S., and though the economy has picked back up recently, Friedman says the company is not going to just dive back into domestic growth only. Instead, he says, Wing Zone will balance both domestic and international expansion.

“The slow down has been good for us, because we’ve really been able to strategically plan where we’re going for the next three to five years,” Friedman says. “There are still financing challenges out there—that is real and probably not going away for a while. But I think whether it was intentionally or unintentionally, moving some of our focus to international has been good for us because it allowed us to see where we’re going as a company.”

By Sam Oches

Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Growth, Menu Innovations, News, Wing Zone