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A look at Taco John’s chicken wings strategy

Renée Middleton, vice president of marketing, speaks with NRN on the West-Mex chain’s foray into wings

Both sales and brand positioning goals are being served by the recent genre-bending decision to add chicken “wings,” which are really made of breast meat, to the core menu at Taco John’s, according to its vice president of marketing, Renée Middleton.

The 425-unit “West-Mex” chain introduced the TJ Baja Boneless Wings products as a limited time offer in late October, and officials said the product has helped drive sales this fall. The menu item has been particularly well received in smaller communities with limited options for wings, such as through specialized fast-casual or casual-dining chains, Middleton noted.

Taco John’s wings come in three flavors – Honey Habanero, Sweet Chipotle BBQ and Bold Buffalo – and three sizes: 5 ounces for a suggested $3.79; half pound for $4.99; and one pound priced at $9.49. Customers can purchase ranch dressing on the side for dipping. Taco John’s average ticket is $7.32, the company said, and its reported 2010 U.S. systemwide foodservice sales totaled $296 million from nine corporate and 409 franchised locations.

Middleton, based in the Cheyenne, Wyo. Headquarters of Taco John’s International Inc., shared with NRN some background and results of the new offering.

What inspired the addition of wings to a ‘West-Mex’ menu made of mostly of tacos, burritos and loose-meat burgers?

We currently serve a Crunchy Chicken menu item with a ranch dipping sauce [and] use this crunchy chicken as an ingredient in some of our more popular menu items. With the growth of chains like Buffalo Wild Wings we felt that we could capitalize on Mexican-inspired flavors on a wing menu item that would meet our customers’ desires for this flavor or taste.

We also have this flavor in a convenient way at a drive-thru that many wing chains don’t have. [And] we like that it hits a younger demo, putting some ‘new’ in our mature chain.

What is the best selling flavor?

It’s neck and neck between Sweet Chipotle BBQ and Honey Habanero, but there’s a slight nod to the Sweet Chipotle BBQ flavor. We’ve done a lot of sampling and customers who sample the Honey Habanero are surprised how much they like it and comment they wouldn’t have ordered it unless they had sampled the taste because the name scared them [into imagining] it might be too hot.

What is the most popular portion size?

Small (5-ounce) is the most popular size because it’s a great add-on, but we’re very happy about how well the half-pound is selling, too.

Is this the first time wings have been offered and is this the furthest afield the menu has ever gone from more conventional Tex-Mex foods?

The short answer is, ‘Yes.’ Our positioning line, ‘The Fresh Taste of West-Mex,’ allows us to put our cravable Potato Olés in burritos, which is bit outside the normal parameters of Mexican food, too.

How successful has this promoted product been compared with others?

It has been double the sales mix of new menu items introduced over the last couple of years.

Are these wings a margin building, margin neutral or a loss leader traffic-boosting type of product?

They are definitely margin building, as we see them being purchased as add-ons, almost like an appetizer, or as an incremental purchase experience because customers pick up a pound to take to a gathering.

Contact Alan Liddle at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @AJ_NRN

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