Buffalo Wild Wings Goes Back to The Bar

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There’s a “sea of sameness” in too many restaurant brands today, according to David McPhillips, director of beverage strategy and innovation for Buffalo Wild Wings. The 1,200-unit chain itself strayed too close to the casual-dining playbook in the past eight to 10 years, he notes.

And with full-service restaurants struggling as consumers shift their dining habits to fast-casual concepts and home delivery, guests need a good reason to choose an eatery. In addition to the food and drinks, atmosphere and entertainment have become a bigger part of the decision for many customers. “We have to get back to being a great American sports bar,” McPhillips says.

David McPhillips, director of beverage strategy and innovation for Buffalo Wild Wings

Returning Buffalo Wild Wings to its sports-bar roots is a key initiative for new parent company Inspire Brands, formerly known as Arby’s Restaurant Group. Roark Capital Group acquired Buffalo Wild Wings in early 2018 and created Inspire Brands, which also includes Arby’s, R Taco, Sonic Drive In and, as of late September, Jimmy John’s.

Atlanta-based Inspire has made a number of key hires for Buffalo Wild Wings, also known as “B Dubs” by fans. Last year it named Jamie Carawan, formerly of Twin Peaks, vice president of brand menu and culinary, and appointed Seth Freeman, formerly of InterContinental Hotels, to the newly created position of chief marketing officer.

McPhillips joined the company this past April after 12 years with Heineken, most recently as on-premise director, casual dining. He started his hospitality career early on flipping burgers at Roy Rogers as well as stints at TGI Fridays and Champps.

Heineken in particular was “a great time to learn how the three tiers of the beverage-alcohol industry work together,” McPhillips notes. “I understand all the tools and resources available,” from strategies to data.

Ditching the fruit bombs

Buffalo Wild Wings in the past year started paring down the menu items to focus on the winners. The team reduced the signature cocktails from about 15 to five, getting rid of the overly sweet “fruit bomb” cocktails often found on casual-dining menus, McPhillips says.

“We were probably too heavy on Tiki drinks, now we have three: Hurricane, Mai Tai and Blue Hawaiian.” 

Buffalo Wild Wings’ new cocktails include a Tito’s Moscow Mule, a Bulleit Rye Old Fashioned and a Bacardi Mojito.

The new cocktails focus on the classics, with such offerings as a Bulleit Rye Old Fashioned ($9) and a Bacardi Mojito ($7), both launched this past March. But McPhillips points out that “there’s a new definition of classic cocktails—Mules, Palomas, etc.—and we want to make sure we’re doing them right.”

Buffalo Wild Wings unveiled its Tito’s Moscow Mule, served in a copper mug and made with Tito’s vodka, fresh lime and Q ginger beer, in March. It rolled out a Sauza Blue Silver Paloma, with Sauza Blue tequila, Q grapefruit soda, salt and lime, in August. A Jack Sour with Jack Daniel’s whiskey, lemon sour, lime sour, maraschino cherry and orange, was scheduled to hit the menu in November.

To facilitate craft cocktails, the chain is providing locations with new mixology kits this fall. These include mixing glasses, julep strainers and molds to make large ice blocks, McPhillips says. And it’s launching a new whiskey glass, which is key to the guest experience, he notes. “It just doesn’t feel right to have a cocktail served in the wrong glass—the guest perception of the drink goes down.”

Beer to stay

Glassware is hugely important for Buffalo Wild Wings, McPhillips adds, noting that it was the first major restaurant group to launch a nucleated beer glass. The brand’s buffalo logo is laser-etched into the bottom; the etching causes it to release the carbonation slowly for improved head retention, enhanced aroma and better taste.

The chain has been introducing rotating craft beers.

Buffalo Wild Wings sells more draft beer than any other restaurant in the U.S.: 100 million tall draft beers in 2018 alone. “Beer is in our DNA, so we have to make sure that our draft and packaged offering is up to date,” McPhillips says.

Toward that end, Buffalo Wild Wings now has a standalone beverage menu that it prints every month. “We can play with our total beverage assortment every 30 days,” he says.

The chain has been introducing rotating craft beers such as New Belgium Mural Agua Fresca Cerveza and Stone Pomma Said Knock You Out IPA, which were available June through August; Stone Tropic of Thunder Lager (September through November); and Dogfish Head Slightly Mighty IPA (December through February 2020).

Tapping the spiked seltzer trend

Buffalo Wild Wings also stocks hard seltzers from White Claw and Truly. The canned products are mandated, McPhillips says, but the chain in August began testing Truly and Bon & Viv unflavored hard seltzer on tap in about 300 locations.

A draft line is typically a single-use product with beer, he notes. But with the hard seltzer, “we can serve it over ice with fresh fruit, or we can use as an ingredient in a cocktail.”

The hard seltzer trend has not taken off on-premise as much as it has at the retail level, McPhillips says. For now, it tends to take the place of the Vodka Soda order, especially in places where you can’t have glassware, such as patios. But when that customer comes back inside the restaurant, he adds, “they will go back to a Vodka Soda.”

McPhillips follows beverage trends carefully: “My job is to look at every liquid we sell outside of the wing sauce.” Up to 90% of Buffalo Wild Wings’ beverage sales come from beer, depending on the location; 9% are from spirits and just 1% come from wine.

The wine category may be miniscule, but McPhillips says that it’s growing at double digits. And it’s an area that Buffalo Wild Wings aims to improve.

The brand’s guest mix is about 50/50 male/female, he notes, so it’s important to appeal to women looking for a good wine selection so that Buffalo Wild Wings doesn’t get vetoed as an option by groups of guests going out together.

Given the group dynamic of a sports bar, “we have to have something for everyone.” Another factor in the push to improve wine, McPhillips says: More male consumers today drink wine. Buffalo Wild Wings has revamped its wine program this year, offering slightly more premium options. The current list includes Ecco Domani pinot grigio, Chateau Ste. Michelle chardonnay, Dark Horse rosé, Mark West pinot noir, Clos de Bois merlot and La Marco prosecco. The company continuously evaluates the lineup, but McPhillips says that new options have increased wine sales.

New chicken sandwiches—a Southern style and Nashville Hot—are hand-breaded with a Lagunitas IPA beer batter.

On the food side, Buffalo Wild Wings has rolled out a number of pub-friendly items designed to appeal to younger guests and groups. For instance, the new boneless wings are now marinated with less breading to be juicier, crispier and more tender.

The chicken tenders and two new sandwiches—a Southern style and Nashville Hot—are hand-breaded with a Lagunitas IPA beer batter. Why an IPA? The company found that India Pale Ales pack considerable flavor that comes through in the breading, plus the higher-alcohol volume in the IPA creates a unique coating.

Are you experiential?

“Good food ultimately draws people in,” McPhillips notes, and a solid drinks program keeps them coming back. But operators today need to offer more to draw guests in.

As a sports bar, McPhillips says, “we’re competing with sports viewing at home. So when guests visit a Buffalo Wild Wings, they’ll get an experience like no other—including at home.”

That means creating a fun, lively atmosphere for sports fans, from the lighting to the music, turning the TV volume up for games, even to more casual uniforms for servers. Buffalo Wild Wings has started redesigning restaurants to enhance the sports bar experience and has so far opened seven locations with the new layout.

A center stage focuses on the bar, bringing it back to the forefront, McPhillips says. The bar, made from the wood of recycled basketball courts, highlights spirits more than in the past and enables locations to offer a more ambitious cocktail program.

In addition to an LED modular jumbotron screen overhead, the bar has televisions on all sides along with flexible and community tables. This provides guests with unlimited views of the game no matter where they’re sitting. 

The design also includes free-flowing and flexible seating areas, VIP spaces, stadium-like A/V technologies with LED modular screens and fully enclosed patios with rollup doors and skylights.

One thing that its new restaurants don’t have: hosts or hostesses. “We’re getting rid of the gatekeeper at the door,” and letting customers sit wherever they want, just like at home or at a friend’s house, McPhillips says.

New restaurant designs includes free-flowing and flexible seating areas and VIP spaces.

Buffalo Wild Wings in September announced a partnership with casino operator MGM to allow sports betting in certain restaurants located in states where the activity is legal. Participants will use a wagering app called “Picks and Props,” which can be played anywhere on any smart device; winners will need to pick up prizes at their local Buffalo Wild Wings.

The companies will begin testing the offering in New Jersey, which legalized sports gambling last year, and will expand to other states if it’s a success. 

In addition to appealing to Millennials and younger consumers, “we want to attract guests who may have lapsed,” McPhillips says. Buffalo Wild Wings is working on all the dayparts from lunch to Happy Hour to late night to smooth out the business. The chain wants to ensure that “any time of the day or week, guests are going to have a good time at Buffalo Wild Wings.”

A start-up with 1,000 stores

The brand has come a long way since Buffalo, NY, natives Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery founded the restaurant nearly 40 years ago. After moving to Columbus, OH, and finding a dearth of authentic Buffalo-style chicken wings, the pair opened the first location, originally called Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck, in 1982.

The restaurant began expanding during the next decade and moved operations from Cincinnati to Minneapolis in the mid-1990s. Buffalo Wild Wings still operates a support center in Minneapolis, but the headquarters moved to Inspire’s location in Atlanta last year. 

The brand has had its ups and downs over the years, but with Inspire’s support, the future looks bright. It’s an exciting time for Buffalo Wild Wings, McPhillips says. “It very much feels like a start-up—one with 1,200 locations.”

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