Wings & Rings prototype store.
Wings & Rings

The new location has a fast-casual element built in.

Buffalo Wings & Rings Brings Fast Casual Into New Design

A 'beer-me' area will help customers connect.

For some of the country’s largest quick-serves, COVID-19’s impact on restaurant design has already started to unfold. Smaller units. More points of purchase. Units focused on drive thru accessibility and mobile ordering. Starbucks, Shake Shack, Taco Bell, Chipotle, and Noodles & Company are among the larger brands rolling fresh formats in recent weeks. In Chipotle and Noodles & Company’s cases, this centers on mobile order pickup windows and reignited development.

READ MORE: The race to the drive thru is on

Starbucks and Shake Shack are quickly diversifying real estate through a host of options, including pickup-window restaurants, units that focus on curbside and takeout (“several hundred” of these are planned for Starbucks in the next 12–18 months), and drive thru expansion into rural markets—the latter of which will be a first when Shake Shack launches a three-lane model in 2021. Taco Bell just lifted the lid off its future design last week, complete with “bellhop” concierge employees and smart kitchen technology that alerts restaurants when guests arrive. The “Go Mobile” store is 1,325 square feet compared to the typical 2,500 and specifically designed for guests ordering ahead through Taco Bell’s app.

But how COVID-19 influences full-service restaurant models remains a more nuanced conversation. (CHECK OUT WHAT THE RESTAURANT OF THE FUTURE MIGHT LOOK LIKE).

One chain—80-plus-unit Buffalo Wings & Rings—unveiled its “G4 bar and restaurant model” Monday, which provides a potential glimpse into a hybrid-like future for sit-down chains.

The store is slated to debut September in Milford, Ohio, and was developed “based on months of consumer research in order to provide guests with a club-level experience that appeals to evolving consumer demands,” the company said.

Buffalo Wing & Rings’ G4 store features multiple elements for different occasions, including a new hangout area and valet pickup, which the chain said will make it easier for customers to access the menu through delivery and to-go. Notably, the brand created an area designated as a fast casual, hangout-zone setting. It showcases a redesigned patio and fire pit, lounge, and a u-shaped bar with surrounding TVs and foosball tables.

Buffalo Wings & Rings is calling this hangout-zone the “Beer-Me” area. There are self-service digital ordering points (only in this section of the restaurant) that allow guests to order at their own pace. The result being a fast-casual dining experience where they can also watch a game or connect with friends.

The location will offer a wide variety of local and regional beers, Buffalo Wings & Rings added, with limited-time local rotations to highlight a local-market feel. “We’ve done our research to ensure our restaurants have the community vibe that our customers are looking for. Our new restaurants will have that in-the-community feel. In the entryway of every store, we’ll hang franchisee stories and photos of local sports teams to bring a piece of the community back,” Diane Matheson, Buffalo Wings & Rings vice president of marketing and branding strategy, said in a statement.

“Getting together doesn’t have to be these ‘big moments,’ it can be a quality meal with friends and family. That’s what makes the good life, and really what we’re hoping to achieve with this new bar and restaurant concept,” added CEO Nader Masadeh.

Buffalo Wings & Rings

New menu innovation is coming as well.

Buffalo Wings & Rings said the new design was optimized with the dine-in customer in mind, but amps up services for those tapping off-premises options. There are “valet points” at each store—or essentially curbside pickup markers, where customers can pull up and have an employee bring the food out. A makeshift coronavirus lifeline turned permanent and deliberate.

“We’re evolving with the ever-changing needs of the consumer. Especially with COVID-19 people are itching to gather with friends and family, and after this is all over we’re excited to have the space to connect people together through our brand,” Matheson said.

The company expects to accompany these changes with new wing flavors and sandwiches in the coming months, as well as a digital platform that enables guests to check-out from their table and call servers with a push of a button.

A second location of the new design is planned for 2021.

Buffalo Wings & Rings, which has roughly 60 U.S. units, saw its sales drop close to 90 percent during peak in mid-March, Masadeh told FSR earlier. In addition to the general setbacks, COVID-19 arrived right before Buffalo Wings & Rings highest-volume seasons—March Madness. Sales climbed into April as the brand boosted off-premises take north of 50 percent.

Ahead of the pandemic, the chain was working through a fourth-generation design called “The Huddle.” Fittingly, it was designed to capture the consumer trend toward convenience and off-premises, with the main feature being a canopy where customers or third-party drivers could pick up food.

COVID-19 could unlock innovation for wing chains of all sizes, which have thrived on the counter-service side. Wingstop, for instance, posted its stronger quarter since its IPO in 2015, both in terms of sales and profit, in Q2. Quarter-to-date in July, same-store sales rose 28.7 percent, lapping double-digit growth in the prior-year quarter.

Buffalo Wild Wings opened a to-go-only concept in Atlanta back in March—a 1,800-square-foot restaurant will have a walk-up counter, digital menu boards, and a small seating area with TVs to entertain customers while they wait for their order. It also included a heated locker for order-ahead purchases. At that point, Buffalo Wild Wings COO John Bowie said, in the past six weeks, the brand grew its off-premises business by more than 140 percent.