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Buffalo Wild Wings to try fast-casual concept

Sports bar chain set to take on Wingstop with a pair of express locations this summer

If you can’t beat them, join them. 

Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. plans to become the latest casual-dining restaurant chain to take its shot at a fast-casual concept. The chicken wing chain said it plans to open a pair of express locations near its Minneapolis headquarters as a test this summer — with four more to be opened later in markets across the country. 

“B-Dubs Express” will involve streamlined, small-format locations with counter service in a “sports-filled environment.”

“It’s a smaller version of Buffalo Wild Wings,” said Todd Kronebusch, Buffalo Wild Wings’ vice president for market development.

“It’s still about beer, wings and sports. But it’s built for uses other than watching sports.”

B-Dubs Express’ menu will include chicken tenders, a chicken sandwich, burger, salad, buffalo mac and cheese along with sides and “shareables” and, of course, the chain’s chicken wings, both bone-n and boneless.

The menu will be about two-thirds of Buffalo Wild Wings’ traditional menu. “We’re building it so the customer can make easy decisions,” Kronebusch said.

The express units are different from the company’s flagship chain in that the focus is more purely on the wings — Buffalo Wild Wings’ locations traditionally work to get customers to spend more time inside the restaurants to drink more beverages. So sporting events are a key element to the chain’s sales.

Buffalo Wild Wings

The express units will maintain some sporting focus, with televisions inside the restaurants. But the locations will cater to takeout customers and the lunch business that Buffalo Wild Wings has struggled to obtain.

The company is targeting 50 percent takeout and 50 percent dine-in at the express locations. 

Buffalo Wild Wings plans to open locations in the Minneapolis suburbs of Edina and Hopkins by late summer. Each location will be about 2,500 square feet and will have seating for 35 to 50 customers. Kronebusch, however, said locations should ultimately have 75.

The company is also targeting Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta and Colorado, with the idea to test the concept in different parts of the country.

For Buffalo Wild Wings, an express concept is a natural evolution. The company has focused more on takeout and delivery in recent years, and has generated real results.

Takeout and delivery accounted for 18.2 percent of revenue at company-owned restaurants in the first quarter, up from 16.6 percent in the same period a year ago. 

“Takeout has continued to grow exponentially,” Kronebusch said. 

He said the locations could help Buffalo Wild Wings expand into markets where there is customer interest, but where the company can’t find locations for a full size unit. Buffalo Wild Wings has tried for years to put a restaurant in Hopkins, for instance, “but we didn’t feel it was the right fit for a full size Buffalo Wild Wings,” Kronebusch said.

Buffalo Wild Wings

Casual-dining chains have routinely turned to “express,” or fast-casual units, in their bids to keep pace with growing fast-casual chains that are taking their business — though many such experiments haven’t worked.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc., for instance, closed or rebranded its 12 fast casual Burger Works units created to keep pace with chains such as Five Guys and Smashburger.

Casual-dining chains’ traffic and same-store sales have been struggling broadly for more than a decade. 

Buffalo Wild Wings traditionally avoided those problems. But that changed last year, when its same-store sales fell 2.4 percent at company locations for the full year, and by 2.7 percent at franchisee outlets. That recovered somewhat in the first three months of 2017, when same-store sales increased 0.5 percent.

Yet fast-casual chains themselves have struggled more recently, too — the sector’s average same-store sales were weaker than any other sector in the first quarter, based on Nation’s Restaurant News data.

In addition, the company has spent the past several months with an activist investor, Marcato Capital Management, pushing for changes. The activist recently won three seats to the Buffalo Wild Wings board, and the company’s CEO, Sally Smith, announced plans to resign.

Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter at @jonathanmaze

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