The sports-grill chain is trying to recreate the restaurant experience at home.
Buffalo Wings & Rings CEO Nader Masadeh was walking through Home Depot on a Sunday afternoon when his phone went haywire. Gov. Mike DeWine had just ordered all Ohio bars and restaurants to close dining rooms by 9 p.m. Ohio was one of the first states to do so (Illinois came shortly after) and the pins started to fall.
The early warning was a blessing of sorts, Masadeh says. He rushed home and took a call from one of the 80-unit chain’s board members. They suggested Masadeh forecast a 50 percent drop in sales and brace for impact.
The reality? It was closer to 90 percent during peak in mid-March, as state by state followed suit and left restaurants scrambling into off-premises-restricted business. COVID-19 also struck the brand during its highest-volume season—March Madness. “This really couldn’t have hit at a worse time,” Masadeh says.
Buffalo Wings & Rings, which has 60 domestic restaurants, counts 13 of them in Ohio. “Immediately within that first 24-48 hours we started thinking the magnitude of this is huge and it’s not going to be limited to Ohio. It’s not going to be just a week,” he says. “So we started reading between the lines to figure out quickly what we were going to do.”
The fact Ohio was an early adopter forced Buffalo Wings & Rings to draft a global plan it could provide later to franchisees across its 13-state system.
In recent weeks, as has been the case for many restaurants, the brand has seen a sales stabilization of sorts following a bottoming out. Early April appreciated a significant bump relative to March, as stimulus checks opened spending habits and people simply started to get tired of the same routine, Masadeh says. Some Buffalo Wings & Rings units have boosted take as high as 50 percent over the prior week in recent periods.
Marketed as “quarantine cooking relief,” Buffalo Wings & Rings created two new family packs to tap into behavior shifts it was seeing. One is the “Alley Oop,” which runs $39.99 and includes 14 chicken tenders with two sharable sides. The other, “Designated Hitter,” costs $42.99 and adds tortilla chips and chili con queso.
“Two things are colliding with each other,” Masadeh says. “One, the lack of disposable income. So that combined with the scare of the coronavirus and the contact with people, it’s sort of ding, ding, ding. Those bundles are really working because I can feed my family at a low cost or even my employees or whatever the case may be, and save some money, and also not have to cook at home.”
Before COVID-19, Buffalo Wings & Rings was doing about 15–20 percent of its business outside the four walls. Masadeh says that fact eased the transition somewhat, but it was still an unprecedented disruption. Especially given March Madness was on the verge of tipping off.
The chain worked to incorporate in-house delivery in certain stores, which helped keep some employees on payroll and broaden reach to go along with third-party channels.
And Buffalo Wings & Rings was working through a “fourth-generation” design ahead of the pandemic 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 accelerated the transformation and took it contactless, with nobody allowed in the dining room. Customers pull up, call or text the restaurant, and an employee comes out with the food. It’s the makeshift drive-thru, curbside experience that has anchored so many full-service restaurants in recent weeks.
Masadeh says some interesting dynamics have emerged. For instance, with coronavirus, people aren’t eager to share food. So Buffalo Wings & Rings recently served a catering order for 100 people where they had to put the food in 100 individual packages.
“While we had these programs in the past, you can pretty much throw them out the window these days,” he says. “You have to rethink what the new normal is and what each meal looks look.” Tamper-evident packaging and small, individual containers were key.
Masadeh also believes bundle meals have gained prominence since they bring people together. It’s not a replacement for the norm, but it inches closer to the brand’s purpose. COVID-19 hit Buffalo Wings & Rings, like other grill chains, especially hard because it evaporated social gatherings. People showed up because of the bar; sporting events; to connect with friends and family. “We lost all of those occasions,” Masadeh says.
The chain has gotten creative trying to recreate that, offering virtual happy hours over Zoom and Facebook. Some locations are selling margaritas to-go and other alcoholic options so people can go home and have wings and drinks with each other, just from screen to screen instead of inside the restaurant. It’s hosted trivia nights on Facebook Live, too.
Masadeh says some franchises chose to temporarily close, but all corporate units are open. And all corporate restaurants have kept employees on staff.
For franchise store-level employees that have been furloughed or laid off, Buffalo Wings & Rings set up a fund workers can dip into for aid. It’s also offering free meals. People can just come to the restaurant they used to work at and grab a meal, no questions asked.
Masadeh adds they’ve reduced royalty payments by 2 percent for franchisees and created another fund they can access quick cash to survive the pandemic. He says the company’s franchise business consultant has stayed in touch with every operator individually, going over their financials, 13-week cash, flow, daily P&L, and segmenting store by store so corporate can devise a plan for every location to get through the coming 30–60–90 days. They worked with franchisees on securing EIDL loans and PPP funds, and were successful, within the first couple of weeks, of getting 27 restaurants some loan payment reduced or deferred.
Moving forward, Masadeh believes the industry will slowly transition back to normal. Not unlike how restaurants operated in the days before dining rooms shut down—disposable menus, salt and pepper shakers off the tables, etc. Like Georgia, Texas, and other states have already required, limited capacity and space between the tables.
He sees August as a possible month for full openings, with a new normal settling by September.
“Consumers are going to be a little hesitant to come out,” he says. “And keep in mind a habit takes only a few weeks to form. So they now have formed new habits. Eating at home. Or deliveries or pickup. Now to get them back into the restaurant is to shift their habits back