Inflation and the macroeconomic environment have made it tough on customers and restaurants, but Wingstop appears immune to most struggles.

Same-store sales soared 21.6 percent in the first quarter, with basically all of it coming from transaction growth. One of the biggest reasons for those skyrocketing comps is Wingstop’s approach to intriguing flavors. From the launch of its Maple Sriracha flavor to the fan-favorite Lemon Pepper wings, the chain’s culinary team proves that innovation, when done right, can lead to lasting success.

QSR recently sat down with Larry Bellah, the fast casual’s senior director of culinary, who delves into the secrets behind the brand’s flavor innovations, the meticulous process of testing and perfecting new menu items, and the strategic thinking that keeps the brand ahead of its competitors.

Can you walk us through Wingstop’s approach to menu innovation? How do you gather ideas and decide which ones to pursue?

At Wingstop, flavor is core to menu innovation as we look to provide new bold, craveable items that our fans will love. Our approach to innovation comes from industry trends and listening to the requests and data from our guests – the heartbeat of our brand. Wingstop’s culinary team is constantly keeping a pulse on culture by innovating and testing new menu items that resonate with our fans across our global footprint. As an example, in 2023, Wingstop launched its first global LTO flavor—Maple Sriracha—in the U.S. and Canada, creating a flavor fusion of sweet maple and fiery Sriracha – the most talked about condiment of the year, with a spin that only Wingstop can deliver.

What factors do you consider when introducing new menu items? How do you balance customer preferences with industry trends and culinary creativity?

At Wingstop, we take our time to get it right when introducing new menu items to ensure we maintain our category of one positioning in the industry. We take our Flavor Expert positioning seriously! Take the debut of our chicken sandwich as an example. We didn’t need to be first in the chicken sandwich games—we waited until we had perfected the sandwich, and we stepped in offering the sandwich that can be hand sauced-and-tossed in and of our 12 mouthwatering flavors, in a world full of bland and spice-less sandwiches. 

The other top consideration is operational simplicity. Wingstop has a very simple, streamlined business model, serving cooked-to-order chicken wings, tenders and sandwiches, available in bold, distinctive flavors. Anything that we introduce, needs to maintain simplistic operations and bold craveable flavors. 

Wingstop is known for its unique flavor profiles. How do you develop new sauces and seasonings while maintaining the brand’s signature taste?

Cooked-to-order, craveable chicken is at our core. Our bold, distinctive flavors are what set us apart. So, when it comes to our unique flavors, we take trending flavor profiles and fan cravings, and create flavors that only Wingstop can deliver. Hot Honey Rub is one example. Unlike the sticky honey consistency that’s to be expected, Wingstop’s Hot Honey is a craveable dry rub, delivering sweet flavors with a bold kick of cayenne pepper and ancho chili.

Innovation often involves testing and experimentation. Could you share some insights into Wingstop’s testing process for new menu items? How do you gather feedback from customers?

Wingstop’s experimentation process kicks off with continuous brainstorming sessions, rooted in culinary trends, to identify flavors that speak to our core fans while attracting new guests. As we move past the initial testing phases, our team conducts concept testing and focus groups until the flavor is perfected. We never rush the process, making sure we have a product that we, as The Flavor Experts, are proud of, before divulging to our passionate fanbase. 

In a competitive market, how does Wingstop differentiate its menu offerings from other wing restaurants? What strategies do you employ to stay ahead of the curve?

We know that our fans crave Wingstop’s cooked-to-order chicken wings and tried-and-true flavors and house-made ranch that made us famous. Lemon Pepper is one of our most talked about flavors, with a proven place in pop culture, making it’s way into hip hop songs, and a constant staple on social media. But we don’t underestimate the power of new flavors and products to keep our fans enticed. We differentiate ourselves by being very thoughtful in what we bring to market, making sure it’s something that only Wingstop can do. 

Wingstop has a loyal fan base. How do you ensure that new menu items resonate with existing customers while also attracting new ones?

We look at the trends and data to see what might match our core fans cravings and attract new guests! Flavor is very personal—some people like spicy, some like sweet and don’t even get us started on the ranch vs. bleu cheese debate. We realize that some flavors will have broad appeal, and others might be more niche, but maintaining a mix of flavor profiles is important as we strive to become a Top 10 Global Restaurant Brand. 

Are there any specific challenges or obstacles you face when innovating in the quick-service restaurant industry? How do you overcome them?

Wingstop is pretty unique when it comes to innovation. We’re not a brand that churns out new products—we acknowledge the simplicity of our menu and model, and are very strategic with what we introduce to our fans. Wingstop is a highly franchised system, so any innovation that we put forward needs to maintain operational simplicity for our brand partners and team members, while also compelling fans into our brand. I’d say we’ve cracked this code. 

Collaboration can be key to innovation. Can you tell us about any partnerships or collaborations that have influenced Wingstop’s menu development?

At Wingstop, we have some of the most passionate fans in the business, celebs and influencers included. Usually, you will find them talking about, rapping about or screaming about our products—no literally screaming about wanting Wingstop—so we’re no stranger to amplify existing fandom. In July, we partnered with loyal brand fan and up-and-coming artist Latto to debut Latto’s Lemon Herb Remix. She came to our kitchen to craft the most craveable flavor alongside the culinary team, and launched it while at Rolling Loud in Miami, even sampling it to the crowd during her set. Wingstop worked with Keith Lee in his early influencing days, and even supports sports teams with bespoke flavors—Knicks Garlic Pepper and Laker’s Legendary Garlic. 

Looking ahead, what can customers expect from Wingstop in terms of menu innovation? Are there any exciting projects or initiatives on the horizon?

Stay tuned! There’s more indulgence on the horizon. We can’t say much, but we can guarantee that flavor will be at the forefront, and it will bring Wingstop’s brand swagger to life. 

Fast Casual, Food, Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, Story, Wingstop