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    Wingstop Takes Flight

  • Armed with the marketing, infrastructure, and know-how, Wingstop is poised to be the quick-service brand that finally takes wings national.

    Andy Howard, left, and Jim Flynn have helped Wingstop to fast growth nationally.

    Wingstop’s executive chairman of the board, Jim Flynn, isn’t shy about comparing his brand to McDonald’s.

    “I want to say we’re going to be the McDonald’s of the wing industry, and basically, we are at this point,” he says. “Because there’s nobody else this big.”

    “They’re one of the best-kept secrets in [quick service],” says Gary Stibel, who has consulted for companies from McDonald’s to Yum! and is now CEO of the New England Consulting Group. “In new markets, they can define the way the game is played.”

    Indeed, Wingstop is playing a new game. Wings aren’t yet widespread in the quick-serve industry, making Wingstop the first serious player in taking this saucy dish national.

    While brands such as Pizza Hut, Pizza Patrón, and KFC do season and toss wings for customers, none of them specialize in it. The closest competitor to Wingstop, in terms of number of locations, is Wing Zone, which tops out at 100 stores. Wingstop, on the other hand, has 515 units dedicated solely to cooked-to-order chicken wings.

    The growth strategy is straightforward: From operations to expansion to R&D, Wingstop focuses on multiple facets of the business rather than zeroing in on one.

    “We have a lot of singles and doubles, as opposed to waiting for one big idea,” says Andy Howard, Wingstop’s chief marketing officer. “It’s probably 10 initiatives.”

    A rundown of undertakings in 2011 includes the debut of the 10th wing flavor, Louisiana Rub; introduction of an iPhone and Android application that increased online ordering by 5 percent; advertisements for national, regional, and local television stations; the company’s first Facebook campaign; a new mystery shopper company that anonymously inspects stores and delivers feedback; and advancement of a sophisticated real estate model, “because it’s still, in this business, [all about] location, location, location,” Howard says.

    With more business initiatives than comebacks led by NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, Wingstop expects 2012 to be the ninth year of same-store-sales increases.

    The sales streak was initiated and solidified by Flynn, who joined the company in 2003 as president and CEO. Under his wing, the brand grew from 88 locations to 515. In June, Flynn stepped into his current role as executive chairman of the board and Charles Morrison was named president and CEO.

    “They have a truly outstanding value proposition,” Stibel says. “They have already differentiated themselves with their product; their product is very good. Their price point is very attractive. They’ve got an outstanding franchising program, which is one of the reasons they’re growing so fast. Their comps are great.”

    Competition for Wingstop does not come from other players in the wing sector or even from sports bars, which are traditionally associated with wings.

    “The thing is, if you look at our alcohol sales, it’s 2 percent,” Flynn says. “We don’t consider Buffalo Wild Wings a real competitor of ours, because 80 percent of our product is take-home and 20 percent is eat-in.”

    Instead, Stibel says, competition for Wingstop arises from other quick-serve joints with the word wing in their names.

    “There are an awful lot of people who will say, ‘I’ve been there, and it’s OK,’ but they haven’t even been to a Wingstop,” Stibel says. “Because it sounds so much like Wingstreet and so many other names out there, it’s easy to confuse them.”

    He says Wingstop’s focus moving forward should be brand building and marketing so the company can distinguish itself from the wing pack.