Investments in digital and delivery platforms were instrumental in helping Wingstop Inc. post a 33% increase in same-store sales in April — during the depth of the coronavirus pandemic’s restaurant restrictions — but the fast-casual brand’s well-honed culture was even more impactful in powering that success, the CEO said Tuesday.
Charlie Morrison, Wingstop CEO and chairman, was the lead-off keynote speaker in the four-day digital Restaurants Rise Live digital conference in a presentation entitled, “Winning the New Normal: Using Your Core Values to Navigate an Ever-Changing Landscape.” The online event continues through Friday.
“We have put in all the right pieces and parts to make sure we were prepared for a world where perhaps 100% of transactions would become digitized in some way,” Morrison said in his presentation. “What we weren’t prepared for was the idea that our dining rooms would completely close. We lost about 20% of our total sales while still growing our same-store sales by over 33%.”
While the coronavirus restrictions were a test for the Dallas-based chicken-wing brand, Morrison said, “we were well-prepared” with a talented leadership team.
People, he said, are the foundation of a successful organization. “A crisis will truly define how we behave as leaders,” Morrison said.
“I think communication truly is the hallmark of any great organization and making sure that we are talking about things consistently day in and day out,” he said, and strong communication leads to deeper engagement.
Wingstop scores the engagement of team members, Morrison said, and the company’s ratings consistently rank high compared to industry benchmarks as well as to those from other industries.
Morrison said his Wingstop leadership team members are identified by three words: humble, hungry and smart.
“We’ve adopted that as part of our culture,” he said. “For us, it’s table stakes. It’s all about who we are as an organization, who the people are that make it happen.”
Those leaders follow four core values, which Morrison said helped the brand overcome of the challenges of the coronavirus restrictions. Those four values are: authenticity, service-mindedness, an entrepreneurial approach and a capacity of having fun.
When the brand launched in 1994, it sold a basic menu of wings from a building footprint of about 1,700 square feet — and little has changed in the ensuing decades, which has helped the brand maintain its authenticity.
Also in the beginning, Wingstop units didn’t have dining rooms, Morrison noted. And with coronavirus restrictions in March, the brand closed its dining rooms. “We don’t have dining rooms now, so we’ve almost returned to the full core roots of our brand,” he said.
The service-mindedness value served Wingstop well when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March, Morrison added.
“We were all faced with the challenge of COVID-19,” he said. “We all woke up essentially one morning — or it arrived to us in a matter of a few days — and we had to make quick and swift decisions. Our first focus was on our team members as well as our brand partners and then the community that surrounded us.”
The entrepreneurial spirit of Wingstop’s franchise community positioned the brand well during the crisis, Morrison said. “We are super-decisive,” he said. “We make decisions with clarity, but we make them quickly so that we can position the brand very, very fast.”
The digital focus of the brand, which had required earlier franchisee investment, helped the company move quickly to become a wholly off-premise brand, he said. “We also made quick decisions that we think were really wise,” Morrison explained, “leveraging that same entrepreneurial spirit.”
For example, Wingstop did not pull back on media investments, he said, even though the wing brand benefited from sports events like the March Madness basketball tournament, which was canceled because of COVID-19. Instead, Wingstop pivoted to digital assets in areas like Hulu and Twitch, which were entertainment platforms based in the home, and emphasized online orders.
“The investment in our culture has really helped fuel this brand now and well into the future,” Morrison said.
Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Wingstop made a $1 million commitment to the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s Restaurant Employee Relief Fund to help those in the hospitality industry impacted by the pandemic.
As part of Restaurants Rise Live, the NRAEF announced it was recognizing Morrison’s commitment to the industry’s workers by this year awarding a $2,500 Charlie Morrison Scholarship to an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in hospitality or foodservice.
“When the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund launched, Charlie and the Wingstop family stepped up big time,” said Sarah Lockyer, Informa Connect restaurant and food group publisher, in announcing the scholarship. “True to the ‘Wingstop Way,’ Charlie made a $1 million commitment to the fund to support workers and communities in need across the entire restaurant industry.”
Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]
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This is part of special coverage of the Restaurants Rise digital summit taking place online June 2-5, powered by Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. Register for live sessions or on-demand replays at RestaurantsRise.com.
Title sponsors for Restaurants Rise include DoorDash, National Pork Board and True Aussie Beef & Lamb. A portion of proceeds from this event will help support the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.