Wing chains reveal post-peak strategies

Wingstop, Hooters, Wing Zone and The Tilted Kilt share their plans for sustaining sales and traffic beyond the peak sports season

Peak-demand season for chicken wings and sports-theme restaurants may be over, but some of those brands are staying in the game with sales- and traffic-building strategies to sustain their momentum beyond the first quarter.

The first three months of the year is typically a heavy sales period for chains like Buffalo Wild Wings, Wingstop, Hooters, Wing Zone and The Tilted Kilt. The NFL playoffs and Super Bowl leading into college basketball’s March Madness tend to drive up restaurant guest counts and takeout orders during this time. But even without the traditional big-draw sporting events, these brands are moving into the spring and summer with promotional and menu strategies aimed at sustaining traffic and mitigating sky-high commodity prices for wings.

Wingstop: Hitting singles and doubles

Richardson, Texas-based Wingstop is coming off a first quarter in which it increased same-store sales by 10.5 percent. While pro football is the chain’s biggest draw, especially because of its partnership with former Dallas Cowboy Troy Aikman, Wingstop will apply the same marketing philosophy as pro basketball nears the postseason and Major League Baseball starts up, according to Andy Howard, the chain's chief marketing officer.

“We’ve got opportunities in a variety of sports,” Howard said. “The NBA playoffs go into the Finals in June, and a lot of that depends on who the teams are and where we have a heavy volume of stores. … We just hit a lot of singles and doubles. We don’t necessarily look for one big idea that will be the end-all, be-all.”

Wingstop introduced its new Louisiana Rub flavor in the fourth quarter and is still benefiting from the incremental traffic and interest it spurred, Howard added. The brand’s smartphone app has taken off as well, he said, now accounting for about five percent of Wingstop’s sales.

The chain’s executives are now concentrating on testing different pricing strategies to mitigate record-high chicken wing prices in the commodities market. “We’re changing around some combo meals, where we can still give a great value but for a better food cost to our operators,” explained Howard. “We’ll see sales and profits go up if we do this right. That should carry us through the rest of the year and beyond.”

Howard said the chain isn't currently advertising on national media but will likely start doing it again toward the end of the second quarter. The brand’s network of 13 regional advertising co-ops are currently maintaining steady local budgets, but will begin to incrementally increase their media budgets once their markets roll out new Coca-Cola Freestyle vending machines.

Wing Zone: Focusing on flavor

Atlanta-based Wing Zone also benefited during “wing season” from September through early April of this year, increasing systemwide same-store sales 9 percent in both the fourth quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, said Matt Friedman, the chain's cofounder and chief executive. But the brand wanted to maintain those volumes through the summer months rather than wait until next season, so it is aggressively promoting its new branding initiative, “Flavorholics Unite.”

Wing Zone involved its Facebook fans by having them vote to rename all 17 of its wing sauce flavors, Friedman said. Mild and hot sauces are now respectively called “Tame” and “Hot Shot,” and the teriyaki sauce was renamed “Tokyo Dragon.” The central part of the campaign is to let customers use any flavor in any menu item for no additional cost, boosting sales of burgers, sandwiches, salads and shrimp.

“Our wing purchases have remained the same, but we’re increasing sales of other items, which has a big impact on our same-store sales,” Friedman said. “We haven’t introduced any new products. We're just giving them a new focus, and it’s better for our daytime business and for driving repeat business.”

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Wing Zone is aiming for the same-sales and traffic numbers as peak season through the flavor campaign, Friedman said, and the brand is also using this time to remodel the lobbies with menu boards and signage that focus on its renamed flavors. He said the cost of remodeling is only about $10,000 per unit, with Wing Zone kicking in up to $5,000 to help franchisees adopt the new look in time for next football season.

“This allows us to get customers who maybe aren’t core wing eaters or want Wing Zone for an extra occasion,” Friedman said. “The reality is that there are fewer wings consumed in summer months, but we can’t wait for next fall.”

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Hooters: Staying busy all summer

March Madness is Hooters’ busiest time of the year, but the Atlanta-based chain isn’t resting in the offseason now that the college basketball tournaments are over.

“We have six big efforts in the next four months to bridge us from now to football season,” said Dave Henninger, the brand’s new chief marketing officer. “It’s going to be a pretty robust summer. We’ll look at our brand from our architecture and repositioning and relaunch as Hooters 2.0.”

The first initiative revolves around pro baseball. Hooters is one of the only national chains to adopt DirecTV’s Extra Innings package, which televises every single Major League game, systemwide.

“We’ll be a beacon for baseball fans, we’ll reach out to fantasy baseball leagues, and we’ll do fun stuff in the restaurants with the Hooters Girls,” Henninger said. “So many of our customers are traveling business diners, and it’s great for them to know they can go to any Hooters and watch their team.”

Hooters also has a new menu built around two new signature burgers and will begin promoting late-night food and drink specials more aggressively. On the event side, local markets will host qualifying competitions for the brand’s national wing-eating championship and Hooters Girl swimsuit pageant.

Later in the summer, two Election Year specials will debut: The 1 Percenter, a combo of 20 wings and a bottle of Champagne; and the 99 Percenter, 20 boneless wings and a pitcher of beer.

“We’ll increase our media weights on TV to tell people about the new menu,” Henninger said, “and this will be a fully integrated onslaught between TV, radio, local-store marketing, social media and in-store marketing.”

The Tilted Kilt: Having a calendar year

For the past five years, The Tilted Kilt, based in Tempe, Ariz., has gone from peak-demand season ending with the championship game of March Madness straight into its Kilt Girl Voting Contest to pick the 12 servers to star in the chain’s calendar. This year, the promotion is running on Facebook, and The Tilted Kilt is getting about 1,000 Facebook “likes” and votes per day.

“With the calendar voting, we’re still promoting the restaurant and still able to push heavily on something, otherwise the marketing would be pretty slow,” said Torie Stevenson, marketing manager for the brand. “It’s nice to stay top of mind, even without football on TV.”

Voting runs through April 30, and once the winners are selected they'll do several months of in-store appearances leading up to the calendar shoot in June. The calendars go on sale in October during the middle of the NFL season, giving the chain plenty of time promote them as a holiday gift for its predominately male clientele.

Between now and next season, The Tilted Kilt also is sponsoring off-road truck racer Corry Weller, a former Kilt Girl.

“We’re excited to involve our Facebook fans in all of this,” Stevenson said. “It’s paying off for our brand because we’re so visual, for obvious reasons, and it helps a lot on Facebook and Twitter. We get amazing amounts of engagement every year for this, and we’re trying to maximize it.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected] [7].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN [8]