How has Inspire Brands jolted the chain so quickly?

One of the benefits of going private, from the company’s perspective at least, is the ability to control the narrative. You’re not tied to reporting quarterly earnings in front of investors each period. It isn’t necessary to shine up a positive message, especially if there isn’t one. Restaurants can batten down the hatches, so to speak, and emerge when there’s something to share. It also makes it easier to operate and strategize from a long-term view given there aren’t day-to-day spikes and plummets.

Perhaps the prime full-service restaurant case is Buffalo Wild Wings.

Inspire Brands, following its $2.3 billion purchase of Sonic Drive-In, became America’s fifth largest restaurant company. The $2.9 billion deal for Buffalo Wild Wings last February signaled the start of the umbrella group, and it wasted no time emerging as a serious force in the industry (Inspire also runs Arby’s and Rusty Taco).

READ MORE: Inside Inspire’s new brand empire.

It was no secret Buffalo Wild Wings limped into the deal. The 1,200-plus-unit brand was burdened, quarter-to-quarter, by historic wing prices and deteriorating guest traffic. It tried to shift customers toward boneless, design smaller stores to strengthen growth prospects, and expand dormant delivery programs in an effort to capture fleeting occasions from guests unwilling to spend hours in-store. All the while, an ugly activist battle waged with hedge fund Marcato. By June 2017, longtime CEO Sally Smith said she would retire before year’s end. Smith, who joined Buffalo Wild Wings in 1996 when it had less than 100 locations, stayed through the completion of the Inspire sale, and went out on her own terms.

When we last heard from Buffalo Wild Wings, it estimated its financial performance for fiscal 2017 with same-store sales ranging from negative 1.6–1.7 percent, with total revenues for the year between $2.067–$2.069 million compared to $2.026 million in the prior-year period. It also estimated net earnings including noncontrolling interests to range between $70–$72 million versus $64 million the previous year. Buffalo Wild Wings’ total store net count increased nine restaurants in the year from the 1,246 units it had as of September 24, 2017.

Part of Buffalo Wild Wings’ future is a fresh design unlike anything in its history.

Inspire CEO Paul Brown spoke from a less concrete perspective about Buffalo Wild Wings’ issues soon after the purchase, telling Business Insider, “I think that if you look back when Buffalo Wild Wings was really, really, really successful, it was really the only one out there doing what it was doing. We had a nationalized local sports bar, and then more competition has come in, and I think that some of that competition has been a little bit more innovative.”

In other words, Buffalo Wild Wings’ concept itself was once all the innovation it needed. Then, the brand stagnated as the sports bar category grew more competitive and saturated by the day. “I think there’s an opportunity to figure out the 21st-century incarnation of what made it so successful during particularly the early 2000s,” Brown said.

Smith once wrote to shareholders that Buffalo Wild Wings was struggling since a growing number of millennials preferred cooking at home, especially compared to older diners and previous generations. They also, more and more, lean toward convenience, fast casual and quick service, as well as delivery, instead of spending time and money in an experience-driven dining environment. “Mall traffic has slowed,” she added in the letter. “And, surprisingly, television viewership of sporting events [important for us, especially] is down.”

Brown’s response to this change in consumer behavior, and how it affects Buffalo Wild Wings, was straightforward: When the chain was at its best, it wasn’t positioning itself against the traditional cast of casual-dining players.

The chance for Inspire, he said, resided in stepping back and letting Buffalo Wild Wings define its own category. This includes a new menu approach and persona that’s willing to take risks, a la Arby’s and the “We Have the Meats,” campaign (venison or duck sandwich, anyone?)

Immediately, Inspire’s scale and experience with Arby’s started to show. Buffalo Wild Wings explored loyalty and improved its off-premises footprint. It’s learning from the operational efficiencies, like speed of service and convenience, Arby’s thrives in.

Brand president Lyle Tick, who joined the company in September after a marketing career that’s included stops with Walgreens and Bacardi, echoed Brown’s thoughts.

Buffalo Wild Wings needed to start acting as casual-dining company in a category of one.

“If you can create an environment that gives them the freedom to engage in a way they want to engage; to feel comfortable in your place; to not feel like it’s structured where you have to go appetizer, entrée, dessert, and out but to be able to own the experience, you’re kind of creating an environment in alchemy for that,” Tick told QSR earlier in the year.

Before getting into how Inspire brought some of these promises to life, there is one way we can peek into Buffalo Wild Wing’s current progress.

Diversified Restaurant Holdings, one of the largest Buffalo Wild Wings franchisees with 64 stores across five states, recently released preliminary unaudited sales results for the fourth quarter and year that ended December 30.

“[Inspire Brands has] done a significant amount of due diligence and are firmly now in execution mode on the all parts of the brand strategy. We are confident that, together, we will revitalize the brand and get back to being the great American sports bar.” — David G. Burke, CEO of Diversified Restaurant Holdings.

Here’s the headliner: The company achieved its first positive quarterly same-store sales result in three years. Also, its quarter-to-date comps have continued to trend positively, president and CEO David G. Burke said in a statement, despite severe weather across many of its regions. If you strip the weather impact, Burke said, DRH is experiencing same-store sales growth above 3 percent, with traffic leading the charge. “We believe this is a testament to the creative, measured approach being taken by the new franchisor to reenergize and rebuild the Buffalo Wild Wings brand, coupled with our focus on guest experience, loyalty attachment and development of the delivery channel,” Burke said.

Perhaps the best proof is the fact DRH entered into an agreement to acquire nine Chicago-market Buffalo Wild Wings for $22.5 million. Unlikely they’d be on that side of the closing table if Inspire’s changes flat-lined. Burke said as much. “Given our excitement with the changes being made at BWW, we believe that prudent, timely expansion will deliver shareholder value,” he said.

DRH typically tells it straight, too. Back in the summer, the company saw its same-store sales drop 6.4 percent as it posted a $1.1 million Q2 net loss. Traffic took an alarming 10.9 percent tumble in the period. “BWW’s vast departure from historical marketing and media strategies beginning in the fall of 2017, as well as a shift in promotional offerings, led to significant departure from casual dining industry trends over the last three quarters; system-wide same-store sales fell dramatically in response to these changes,” the company said at the time.

Take a glance at how severe the traffic trend was headed:

  • Q3 2018: –4.9 percent
  • Q2 2018: –10.9 percent
  • Q1 2018: –16.2 percent
  • Q4 2017: –12.3 percent
  • Q3 2017: –6.3 percent
  • Q2 2017: –1.95 percent
  • Q1 2017: 2 percent

DRH hasn’t shared the exact traffic figures for Q4 just yet (scheduled to later in the week) but said earlier that October was tracking positive 2.6 percent. A green result in Q4 would signal the first since Q1 of 2017, when it was 2 percent. Before that: 0.6 percent in Q1 2015.

In November, Burke expressed further optimism on a conference call. And this was coming from the ground level of a franchisee company operating day-to-day, not the corporate office trying to sate investors. Even after same-store sales declined 5.2 percent to go with the 4.9 percent traffic drop.

Buffalo Wild Wings Is Being Sold To Arby's

Buffalo Wild Wings needs to become a category of one in casual dining, like it used to be.

“It is important to note that we are in the early stages of the brand revitalization, and we continue to believe that the more substantial efforts will be realized throughout 2019 as more impactful changes are implemented and gain traction,” he said. “This includes improvements to the menu and food presentation, information technology, and continued enhancements around advertising and promotions, especially as we move into the March Madness period early next year, another significant sales environment for Buffalo Wild Wings.”

“And current plans call for a complete relaunch of the brand as we approach the fall of next year,” Burke added. “There are a lot of exciting initiatives in the horizon.”

It will be very interesting to see how this “complete relaunch” unfolds. But first, let’s unpack what’s happened already.

The menu

Brown told BI that Buffalo Wild Wings’ menu strategy needed a serious jolt. Too much of its success was dependent on chicken wing prices, which can be volatile, to put it mildly. Take DRH for example. In Q3, traditional wing costs came in at 28.5 percent of net sales. That was down 100 basis points from record highs in the prior year. The previous August, Mizuho Restaurant and Proteins Analyst Jeremey Scott calculated the average price of wings above $2 per pound—more than 60 cents per pound higher than the running 10-year average.

Traditional wings, as a percentage of total cost to sales, increased sequentially quarter to quarter for DRH to 20.7 percent from 19.5 percent. But that level was still significantly lower than the 25.3 percent peak hitting the previous year’s third quarter.

So what has changed? In August, Buffalo Wild Wings unveiled an exclusive menu for football season. The value-focused offering centered on the $5 price point and added Bratwurst, a cheeseburger and fries, specialty cocktails, and 38-ounce domestic pitchers.

Burke said the menu was an immediate hit, leading to an uptick in sales, particularly on the weekends. And average check held up since guests were spending more time in their restaurants. Dressed down, it’s a very smart play for Buffalo Wild Wings and the unique experiential factor Brown alluded to. Typically, value will drive traffic at the cost of check. But that’s a casual-dining trend. If Brown’s vision materializes, Buffalo Wild Wings will become a brand that operates outside the typical casual-dining conversation. Meaning, it can use value to boost traffic and still see higher check. The obvious reason being that guests who come to Buffalo Wild Wings for game day aren’t watching the clock like somebody grabbing dinner before a movie. Why not value drive the experience if the occasion lasts four hours? That’s an upselling opportunity, with value tossed in, unlikely to ever take place at a traditional casual chain, which is exactly Brown’s point.

“Net-net, this promotion has been very favorable to us, not only the way it is contributing to the traffic-driving nature, [but with] the performance that we’re seeing,” Burke said of the menu. “But it’s not all completely offset with price. I mean, there’s clearly going to be some price erosion, but it is offset by traffic.”

He added that new creative drove awareness into Buffalo Wild Wing’s brand experience (more on this shortly). The two simply can’t exist without each other. In the case of brats and pitchers, those were items Buffalo Wild Wings wasn’t selling before.

Can Buffalo Wild Wings do more with beverage? The answer is yes.

At DRH, alcohol is right around 17–18 percent of total sales. Dine-in, it’s low 20s. Burke said, given the sports bar positioning, Buffalo Wild Wings should mix even higher on the beverage side, despite the take-out effect. “We’re working on not only enhancing the beer program, but also enhancing a relatively nonexistent spirit program within the brand,” he said. “And it’s not just about the alcohol program itself, but it’s the experience in-store and making adjustments to make the bar a little bit more enticing and more appealing to the guests just to drive overall alcohol sales.”

A recent example: Buffalo Wild Wings’ new food and beer promotions to kick off the season. This included five new, first-to-market regional craft brews. For the first time, the chain partnered with regional craft companies to offer unique, football-themed offerings for Fantasy Football Draft parties. Bundle food deals, like 30 wings for $30, were unveiled, too. In November, Buffalo Wild Wings introduced the next installment of its Legends of Craft Beer Brew series that releases special varieties at restaurants. It’s also worth noting that Buffalo Wild Wings expanded beer and wine delivery to California in January 2018.

The message, the look, and who’s in charge of both

This past December, Buffalo Wild Wings provided a glimpse into its restaurant of the future. The design wasn’t a simple refresh; it created and spotlighted customer-experience elements that weren’t part of the picture before. As the company noted, “the design brings Buffalo Wild Wings back to its roots as a great American sports bar and provides guests a unique and immersive experience to hang out, watch games, and create memories with friends.”

Models opened December 17 in New Caney, Texas, and Bowling Green, Kentucky. Buffalo Wild Wings said Arden, North Carolina, and Fort Worth, Texas, were up next. The refresh—its first since 2012—includes a more prominent bar (speaks to Burke’s comment), indoor and outdoor seating, and free-flowing and flexible seating areas. Additionally, VIP spaces, stadium-like A/V technologies with LED modular screens, and a fully enclosed patio with rollup doors and skylights, are part of the model.

Exterior changes included Buffalo Wild Wings updated logo atop the entry, bordered by a yellow LED band. The left of the front entryway features a glass door that provides access to the patio. There’s also a dedicated off-premises entrance. Here’s more on the new design.

A couple of quick notes worth highlighting are the “Dugout” and “MVP” rooms. The first is a space designed to turn Buffalo Wild Wings’ waiting area into a lounge with a sporty feel. It has bleachers and allows guests to grab a drink and watch a game while they wait. “On a big night—like a UFC fight or a primetime NFL game the bleachers transform from a cool waiting spot to one of the best seats in the bar,” Luke DeRouen, VP of brand experience and activation, said at the time.

The Dugout allows Buffalo Wild Wings to keep waiting guests happy.

“There’s nothing like this in the current Buffalo Wild Wings,” Luke DeRouen, VP of brand experience and activation at Buffalo Wild Wings, said of the MVP room.

Off-premises remains a key driver for Buffalo Wild Wings. And now there’s a sauce wall.

Another way for Buffalo Wild Wings to be something its casual-dining peers are not.

Also along those lines, the MVP room, available just to guests 21 and older, includes two 80-inch TVs, a third 60-inch TV, gaming consoles, and six self-pour beer taps (the amount could change by location). The goal: capture not just the esports rage, but offer a “mini stadium environment” that provides another brand differentiator. “This space really serves as three experience functions: private viewing, gaming, and local activation. The local experience will be different for every community, and that’s exactly what we want. We now have an ideal spot to host local radio remotes and coaches shows, as well as an area for the local high school star to sign his Letter of Intent to play college ball,” DeRouen said.

In regards to the message, Buffalo Wild Wings unveiled an extensive new partnership and ad campaign ahead of football season as well. This joined a partnership with online fantasy sports site DraftKings, Buffalo Wild Wings’ fresh creative campaign, developed by Figliulo&Partners, known as Escape to Football, “explored the reality that everyone has commitments and obligations in life that can keep them from where they’d rather be on game day: watching football,” Buffalo Wild Wings said. These spots include characters in real-life scenarios, such as being stuck at a PTA meeting, taking family photos, or working late at the office. They then ultimately escape to Buffalo Wild Wings.

Check out one of the ads below.

You can bank on Buffalo Wild Wings dialing up another campaign as college basketball seasons enters its apex.

At the controls is Seth Freeman. The chain’s new CMO arrived in August from InterContinental Hotels Group, where he worked across several brands, “leading high-profile guest experience and design initiatives, partnering with franchisees across over 2,000 locations to drive growth, and overseeing award-winning marketing campaigns for Holiday Inn Express.” Brown, as senior vice president of global brand services, also hailed from InterContinental.

Buffalo Wild Wing’s executive strategy—building a leadership team outside of the typical restaurant industry bounce-around formula—is something Brown hinted to before. He has referenced the multiple-chain portfolios used by hotels as an example for Inspire’s structure. Brown previously said he wants to organize the company like Hilton Hotels & Resorts, which uses one loyalty program for all its different properties. Inspire Brands would stand out from its competitors in this fashion, as most companies stay within a specific segment. Darden, Brinker International, and Bloomin’ Brands, for example, operate casual dining chains across different full-service fields. YUM! Brands, the owner of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, sticks to fast food, as does Restaurant Brands International with Burger King, Tim Hortons, and Popeyes.

The idea being that Inspire Brands could capture more visits from the same customers, and service all manners of guests across all dayparts, price points, and interests.

Whatever aspects you examine, the comeback at Buffalo Wild Wings appears to have very sturdy—and real—credentials. “… we remain extremely bullish about the direction Inspire Brands have taken the Buffalo Wild Wings brand,” Burke said. “As a franchisee, we’ve been involved and engaged with the new leadership, consulting on many decisions. They’ve done a significant amount of due diligence and are firmly now in execution mode on the all parts of the brand strategy. We are confident that, together, we will revitalize the brand and get back to being the great American sports bar.”

That’s a much rosier outlook than Buffalo Wild Wings has enjoyed in quite some time.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Buffalo Wild Wings