The four college friends were devastated. A Wings Over near Cornell University’s campus shuttered, boarding up years of memories and future reunions.
“We started joking about opening it back up,” says Dan Leyva. “That lasted only five minutes before it turned into a real conversation about how we can do this. What would it look like?”
A month later, Leyva, along with Kevin Mok, Raunak Nirmal, and Mike Wang, signed a lease for their Ithaca, New York, outpost of the 40-unit chicken-wing chain. Construction started in January and the store opened in April.
As it turns out, the rapid process was just a precursor to something much larger.
Leyva told QSR on Monday that the team, which makes up Delectable Capital, is closing a deal to assume ownership of the entire Wings Over company, just about a year from the day they first lamented the Cornell closure.
“Something that we thought would be a five–10 year conversation quickly turned into a three–four-month conversation,” he says.
The group is acquiring Wings Over, which is a fully franchised concept with stores in 13 states, from Patrick Daly and Harold Tramazzo, the original founders who will remain franchisees. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Daly and Tramazzo began Wings Over in 1999 in Amherst, Massachusetts. It began franchising in the early 2000s
Leyva says the timing was perfect for all parties.
“They grew it out of nothing,” says Leyva, who will become CEO (his official title is Chief Wing Officer) of Wings Over and assume control of operations. “They’re super proud of what they’ve done, which is amazing. They had no restaurant background or anything like that. To build a 40-unit restaurant group is kind of amazing. But it’s gotten to the point where they don’t know where to go next and they know there’s a big opportunity to take this to the next level.”
Leyva’s team didn’t have high expectations when they approached Daly and Tramazzo about a possible sale. But they were surprised to discover the duo was ready to focus on their families and take a step back from the rigors of growing a restaurant chain.
That is exactly the task Leyva and Delectable Capital were looking for. Leyva, Mok, and Nirmal are all 25-years-old. Wang is the elder at 30.
While young, Leyva has clocked time in the restaurant business since he was 14. Once he graduated, Leyva took a job as general manager at New York City restaurant Tacombi. He helped grow technology platforms Salido and MealPal (formerly called MealPass), and has always had a knack for the start-up and growth side of hospitality.
“With the amazing skills that all the other partners have in terms of knowledge in real estate, knowledge in technology, knowledge in finances—we create and awesome group,” he says. “We would be lying if we said it’s not a daunting task in front of us. But I would say everything we’ve done up to this point has been really daunting and we’re exciting about the opportunity.”
The new, privately held ownership has broad plans to reshape Wings Over. Leyva believes they can get to 100 units within the next three years and triple that amount, if not more, in the coming decade as they target the national landscape.
He plans to go out to stores and meet with franchisees to understand what their true pain points are, and find out where on-the-ground operators feel the whitespace lies.
In the next year or two, however, the biggest focus will be on redesigning and reimagining the concept, Leyva says, and to make it more inviting for dine-in guests.
“Really, when you think about chicken-wing restaurants it’s either a sports bar, like Buffalo Wild Wings, or it’s a little hole in the wall. It’s not really a place where you want to go on a date or anything like that,” Leyva says. “We kind of want to be right in between. We don’t serve alcohol, but we want it to be super nice, super comfortable, modern, and a place where people want to come in and have a really enjoyable experience.”
“Focusing on the current franchisees, focusing on technology, and redesigning kind of the whole concept,” he adds. “We’re going to be quite busy in the next few months.”
Aside from the nostalgia, Leyva says they were attracted to Wings Over because its root success didn’t need a makeover. This was clear when they opened the Ithaca location.
“From that point we were just like, ‘Man, people love this brand.’ We saw the outpouring of people who were devastated when it closed and we just started doing research as to where these other locations were, what the market looked like. And we just saw the amazing opportunity,” he says.
“If a product isn’t good, you could put up paint, you could put up a great design, but you’re not going to be able to do much. We don’t have that problem here.”
The brand features 25 wing flavors, never frozen or processed, as well as ribs, sandwiches, wraps, fries, and sides.
“I first fell in love with the Wings Over brand while studying at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration,” Mok says. “The product was amazing, the people were great, and everything was always consistent. With the talented team that we've assembled, we will expand Wings Over, and strive to make it the premium fast-casual wings restaurant in the country.”
Wings Over is currently clustered in college markets and will continue exploring those opportunities moving forward, Leyva says. They will aim to expand in more suburban areas as well.
A goal, Leyva says, will be to foster a workplace where employees stick around.
“We always will invest in people first,” he says. “The product will always be a focus. We feel if we take care of our people inside and we take care of the product, everything else will kind of fall into place. We’re super thankful to Pat and Harold for what they’ve done in terms of where they’ve got the brand to where it is today. If it wasn’t for those guys this wouldn’t be possible at all.”