It's all about options.

It wasn’t so much sports-centric peers or grill concepts, or even COVID-19, that forced Buffalo Wings & Rings to rethink its design. Rather, it was the proliferation of brewpubs and brew houses, and how customers started to perceive these ago-old hangouts.

Over the past few years, local breweries sprouted in modern, casual settings across the country. And they appealed not just to adults and social gatherings, but to young families as well—especially millennial households, which represent one of the fastest-growing spending groups.

A little more than two years ago, 80-unit Buffalo Wings & Rings observed this millennial-driven shift. What they needed was changing.

“For some certain occasions, they were not coming to us, and we started doing research,” CEO Nader Masadeh says.

Additionally, off-premises business remained a steady gainer. Gen Z entered the equation. The cost of construction took off. “So we thought, OK, maybe this is a good time to stop and rethink this thing,” he says.

READ MORE: Buffalo Wings & Rings navigates the early days of COVID-19

The pandemic proved the last straw. But the why hadn’t changed—customers wanted to access Buffalo Wings & Rings in multiple ways, and the chain wasn’t set up to deliver. A one-note direction forced guests to slot Buffalo Wings & Rings into very specific sets. “This is my restaurant for family nights out,” or to “watch the game and enjoy a standard meal,” and so forth. The traditional sports-bar aim of moving the guest from the table to the bar to keep them tuned in and engaged was proving challenging given the niche options in the marketplace, like rowdier bars or local brewpubs.

In particular, it was this latter group Buffalo Wings & Rings was coming up short with. Masadeh explains it as follows: “Some evenings I’m coming with my buddies and I just want to hang out with them and have a beer and be loud and obnoxious and enjoy it,” he says. “And [the customers] said, for those occasions, I’m not going to you guys, I’m going to some of your competitors or some of the beer producers and brew houses and the pubs.”

Buffalo Wings & Rings had started to cede bar occasions. Yet this realization is easier observed than fixed. How can you accommodate all of those needs in one casual-dining space? How can you shift toward the bar area and not forfeit a family-friendly atmosphere?

Chef Edward Lee

The answer was a zone-based design that takes a deliberate approach to different experiences. Called G4, Buffalo Wings & Rings plans to debut the unit mid-October in Milford, Ohio.

There’s a traditional dining-room zone, where customers elect for sit-down service. Show up, grab a table, have a waiter or waitress swing by with a menu. There’s also a bar zone featuring high-top tables and a bar where consumers pull up and engage with the bartender.

The headliner, though, is a “Beer-Me” section, or hangout-zone that features self-service digital ordering points, a redesigned patio and fire pit, lounge, and U-shaped bar with surrounding TVs and foosball tables.

You could call this feature fast casual, or compare it to a brewery, where customers order beer at a counter and then sit back down or stand wherever they like. Buffalo Wings & Ring’s version falls somewhere in the middle, with technology as the anchor.

In the hangout zone, customers don’t have to talk to anybody they didn’t show up with, if that’s what they’re hoping for. Buffalo Wings & Rings designed technology into its app and site where customers order via mobile devices. They can reorder and eventually pay, too, without interacting with a server.

A key here isn’t just the lack of back-and-forth, which is something millennials circled in the company’s research, but also the fact they can control the check. They can avoid tips (like in a fast-casual setting) and steer clear of table checks or upselling. “Nobody is bothering you,” Masadeh says.

This is something Masadeh believes will actually help build larger orders. How many times at a busy sports restaurant has a server come by and you ordered just so you wouldn’t need to wait for them to return? How often has that reliance stalled a second drink order, or another round of wings?

“It takes the stress away,” Masadeh says. “You can order at your comfort.”

In addition to these updates, Buffalo Wings & Rings built “valet points” for off-premises business. Customers pull up to an enclosed canopy spot and employees exit a specified door, straight from the kitchen, to drop food off curbside. All contactless. All payment through online.

The revolutionary nature of this G4 design, Masadeh says, comes from the ability to access different experiences within the same four walls, yet with a casual-dining backbone. Fast casual service. Sit-down quality food. “And hang out with your buddy in a sports restaurant environment. How much more could you ask for,” Masadeh says. “It’s a dream come true.”

Buffalo Wings & Rings does expect a learning curve, however. While the zones are physically separated, it’s not entirely clear upon entry. “Anybody that’s first to market with ideas will have to suffer that educational piece to the launch,” Masadeh says. “I am confident that we will have our fair share of educating consumers what each zone means and how you can use it to market that, hey, we have these options.”

In other terms, it’s not going to say “walk left for this,” “walk right for this” after you step through. Masadeh says staff will be tasked with getting the message out. But he believes it will be a relatively quick light bulb for most. One they try out the zones, it’s clear. And that will stick and spread through word-of-mouth.

Buffalo Wings & Rings developed other technology accompaniments, too. It’s working on an app to pay at the table and split checks. Alongside, it will also showcase an educational piece to lean into the beer focus.

The new unit will offer a variety of local and regional beer, with limited-time rotations to highlight the restaurant’s community feel. And the technology will offer descriptions of the beer choices, how they’re made, what’s in them, etc.

There will also be an option to call the server, like an airplane seat. Buffalo Wings & Rings didn’t want to discount or take the human element out of the fast-casual zone completely. So anytime somebody has a question or needs help, they pull up the app and call. Masadeh labels it “server on demand.”

When Buffalo Wings & Rings asked customers if they would rather order via phone or the conventional face-to-face, they mostly gave a blurry response. “Sometimes I like this, and sometimes I like this.”

“What we realized is they wanted the option,” Masadeh says. “And that’s our way of saying OK, we have a solution for you. If you’d rather the conventional way, go left and sit down. And if you want the other way, go right and sit there. And you have your choice of service utilizing the technology.”

The company debuted a fresh point-of-sale as well that allows wait staff to take orders at the table. Even on the full-service side, people will have options if they want to go as contactless or not.

Buffalo Wings & Rings gathered this data and list of proverbial demands from loyalty members and core users. The goal being to offer a multi-tiered experience specific and catered to customers the chain already had. “If you try to go after everybody you really meet nobody’s needs,” Masadeh says

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Buffalo Wings & Rings