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The Power List
Donnie Upshaw, senior vice president of people for Wingstop Inc.

How Wingstop succeeded during the COVID-19 pandemic

Donnie Upshaw, senior vice president of people, shares the brand's values and talks about investing in employees. Meet the innovative, inclusive and industry changing leaders of the 2021 NRN Power List.

Donnie Upshaw, senior vice president of people for Wingstop Inc., was chosen for the Power List by CEO Charlie Morrison because of how he exemplifies the company’s values and drives “tangible and real” results. Here’s what else Morrison had to say:

Donnie joined Wingstop at a pivotal time in mid-2018. The brand continued experiencing unprecedented growth and needed a strong leader to guide our investments in people and infrastructure to build the organization for the next level. Donnie established a talent management framework to foster team member growth and advancement within the organization. He also implemented unlimited paid time off and rallied the organization around our core values, “The Wingstop Way.” Donnie exemplifies our definition of the ideal team player: humble, hungry and smart. The results of Donnie’s leadership are tangible and real, driving our engagement scores above 85%  — well above the industry norm.

Nation’s Restaurant News talked with Donnie Upshaw about how the company built a company culture that “even a pandemic couldn’t shake.” Here’s what he had to say:

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned during this chaotic year?

Wingstop was well-positioned for the pandemic and challenges of 2020 not only from a digital and technology perspective, but from a cultural perspective as well. Our core values, known as “The Wingstop Way” — service-minded, authentic, entrepreneurial and fun — have been and will continue to be our guiding light through all seasons of our business. Although we had built “The Wingstop Way” to guide our behaviors and actions and serve as criteria when seeking new talent, we quickly found that we essentially prebuilt a culture that even a pandemic couldn’t shake.

donnie-upshaw.jpgThe work we did to invest in our people and retain top talent was at the helm of the results our business has experienced throughout COVID. Our world changed in a matter of hours, but the Wingstop team remained steadfast in our collective values.

What are you most proud of in terms of company leadership and community impact as you look back at the challenges of 2020?

Giving back is ingrained in our DNA through our service-minded mentality, so, when COVID hit, our entire organization was looking for ways to help. We created Flavor for Good Week, where team members and brand partners alike teamed together to donate more than one million meals to first responders, health care workers and those in need. At the onset of the pandemic we also donated $1 million to Guy Fieri’s Restaurant Employee Relief Fund to assist our struggling brethren in the industry via $500 individual grants. We did our part in our Wingstop restaurants as well, creating 9,000-plus new jobs across the country.

The perils of 2020 didn’t stop with COVID — the world was rocked with the killing of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed. Wingstop made a commitment to not stand idly by, but rather take action. This began with the creation of a social injustice task force, educating our organization on the importance of voting, and creating a safe, open forum for our team. There is much to be done, but we will fight until the fight is no longer.


How are you or your company fostering diverse and inclusive future leaders of foodservice?

One of the most impactful accomplishments regarding diversity, equity and inclusion was our genuine, transparent response to the rampant social injustice of 2020. Where others may have addressed their teams with a scripted response, Wingstop came together in a unique all-team Zoom call unlike any other where we asked team members to go “off mute” and tell us what was on their mind. The result was raw, emotional and honest dialogue that served as the catalyst for future meetings of the same type called “Speak Your Flavor” as well as a larger call to action around education. We recognized that we’d all be learning, together, to become comfortable with a topic that can feel uncomfortable to discuss. We spent time speaking about unconscious bias, microaggressions and social equity in a meaningful and impactful way, not just a “check the box” course. We made this part of our culture and institutionalized what being inclusive means at Wingstop through our mantra, “Be Yourself With Us.”

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