When COVID-19 first struck in the U.S. in the spring, uncertainty reigned. But one thing quickly became clear for the restaurant industry: Those brands that already had a robust off-premises strategy and digital-ordering capabilities had a huge advantage in serving anxious consumers.

That was certainly true of Wingstop. Shortly after Charlie Morrison became CEO in 2012, the Dallas-based wings chain implemented a goal for 100 percent of its orders to eventually be placed digitally. And by March, that number stood around 40 percent, with about 80 percent of its business being served off-premises.

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The path to getting there may have started with Morrison and his past experience in the pizza industry as RAVE Restaurant Group’s CEO, but it was especially powered by Stacy Peterson, Wingstop’s chief technology officer. Peterson spent the bulk of her early career as an IT leader at FedEx/Kinko’s, and she says she has drawn on that experience in her time at Wingstop.

“Everything at Kinko’s was a custom order. So if I’m Stacey and I’m running my Girl Scouts, and I have to create a booklet, how do I build that booklet? How do I produce that booklet? How do I bind and cover that booklet?” Peterson says. “It’s really a custom manufacturing process, and food is a custom manufacturing process, so there’s been a lot of similarities, particularly from a technology perspective.”

The first piece that needed to happen in pushing Wingstop toward a more digital future was to simplify its existing systems so that the company’s franchisees could be on the same page and trust that the investments would be sound. So Wingstop standardized its POS system and its menu, then rolled out an integrated, enterprise-grade online-ordering system.

“While those are just fundamentals, those fundamentals are what lead to reliability,” Peterson says. “And it’s the reliability that the franchise operators needed to believe in to promote digital system. … Once they started promoting it to their guests, we saw our digital adoption increase, and we increased organically every year, 4 or 5 percent year over year.”

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With the flood gates opened, Wingstop started to double down on digital ordering capabilities; guests today can order via the company’s app or website, as well as via DoorDash. The company has also flirted in the past with things like Alexa voice ordering and Facebook bots.

Because all of its digital orders are integrated into the back end, Peterson says, it eliminates any complexities for the brand partners. “If they bring it up with the guest standing in front of them, or the guest is on a myriad of accessible channels where they could place their order, they all come in the exact same way, exact same ticket, exact same make line,” she says.

The benefits of these digital solutions have been evident: Not only did they streamline operations, but they also boosted the top line. Average checks for digital orders are $5 higher than those through non-digital channels.

Having all this set up before the pandemic proved to be fortuitous, as digital ordering and off-premises experiences have become second nature to American consumers. As with virtually all restaurant brands, COVID-19 expedited Wingstop’s digital growth. Now, more than 60 percent of its sales come from digital channels. Morrison has said that puts Wingstop’s digital evolution about two years ahead of schedule.

But that doesn’t mean Wingstop will take a break with innovation. After all, there’s still a long way to go before it hits 100 percent digital orders.

“One of our key values is to be entrepreneurial, and so that naturally means that we will try new things and test new technologies, and some of them will work, and some of them won’t,” Peterson says. “But we will learn from it.”

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As an example of one such platform that has so far proved less than successful, she points to automated voice orders by phone using natural language processing.

“The first time we did it, we weren’t happy with the results, so it never came out of test, and we kind of put that on the shelf for a little bit,” Peterson says. “Now we’re back at it again and we have it running in about half of our corporate restaurants, and we’re much more encouraged by where the technology has progressed since our first time. We’ll continue testing and we’ll continue learning.”

As for other ways Wingstop might innovate through technology in the future, Peterson suggests things like ordering kiosks and pick-up lockers could be in the brand’s future; in fact, it was testing them before COVID but put those tests on pause. Those technologies, she says, could theoretically allow a restaurant to conduct sales even when it’s closed, with the customer experience conducted entirely through their phone.

Things might look easy for Wingstop these days, but the road to 100 percent digital orders has already been long and laborious. And Peterson doesn’t think achieving that goal is going to be a cinch, even with the new realities brought about by the pandemic.

“I think there is an 80/20 rule in almost everything that you do, where the last 20 percent is the hardest. And as we and the pizza brands approach a majority digital business, converting those last 20 percent of customers is going to be tricky; you’ve essentially already established all of your low-hanging fruit, all of your fundamentals,” she says. “So it’s going to be innovations that continue to [drive] new interest when it comes to converting customers to digital ordering customers.”

To listen to the full interview with Peterson as part of our Wingstop Week series, stream the Fast Forward podcast above or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also click here for part one, a conversation with Wingstop CMO Christina Clarke; here for part two, an interview with the brand’s senior vice president of people Donnie Upshaw; and here for part three, a talk with president of international Nicolas Boudet.

Back of House, Customer Experience, Ordering, Restaurant Operations, Story, Technology, Wingstop