In the ever-changing restaurant world, adaptation does not always mean chasing or creating trends, but sometimes going back to your roots. After shifting from its niche as the “great American sports bar” into a convenience-driven arena, Buffalo Wild Wings found itself falling behind the competition. The 1,200-unit chain then decided to go back to what endeared the brand to the masses to begin with. Since being acquired by Arby’s (now Inspire Brands) for $2.9 billion last February, Buffalo Wild Wings has undergone a systemwide turnaround effort driven by marketing that emphasizes the overall dine-in experience and not just the food.
Buffalo Wild Wings’ CMO Seth Freeman, who came onboard nearly a year ago, previously worked in marketing for InterContinental Hotels and consumer packaged goods for Coke. “This is my first foray into restaurants and sports bars, so it was a big change,” Freeman told FSR at Buffalo Wild Wings’ recent media event in Times Square. “It’s been a lot of fun. The pace is really fast. You’re always learning.”
Freeman grew up in Ohio, where the brand was born, and felt it was an exciting opportunity to retune and redefine a company he felt intimately connected to. “I feel like we’ve got a great offering now, which we didn’t necessarily have before,” he says. “Secondly, there was the opportunity to create new messaging and focus on the energy, excitement, and the experience in a way that could bring people in. Overall, it’s been great. As we talk about this notion of getting back to our roots as the great American sports bar, I feel like we’re on the right path to do that.”
“We’re like a 37-year old startup in the fact that we’ve been around for quite awhile,” adds Tyler Riddle, Buffalo Wild Wings’ director of culinary. “But at the same time, everything we’re doing is new and exciting. The team that [VP of brand menu and culinary] Jamie [Carawan]’s built, the team that [CEO] Paul Brown and [president] Lyle Tick have built, everyone that’s at Buffalo Wild Wings has as much fun doing what we do as a consumer would going to Buffalo Wild Wings. It’s exciting.”
When asked about culinary challenges in his role, Riddle says, “Everything we serve—burgers and chicken respectively—come from live products. There’s a lot of nuances around that and a lot of strategy around that—how we buy, what we buy, how we responsibly buy chicken and beef—and then rolling that out to our stores.” The key, he adds, is to have the excitement generated in Inspire Brands’ Atlanta hub roll out to customers nationwide. “We have to make sure that the things we do not only are fiscally responsible and environmentally responsible, but are culturally responsible for the members that we have in the front of house.”
Carawan came to Buffalo Wild Wings a little over a year ago after previously working for Twin Peaks Restaurants, Front Burner Restaurants, On The Border, and Brinker International, all based in Dallas.
“The toughest thing is when you start working on a brand like this, people continue to put the scale of the brand as paramount,” Carawan says. “Frankly, if you just focus on that scale, it will make you less creative. When you present something like a hand-breaded chicken tender, if someone’s only focusing on a scale, they’ll say, no way we can do this. So let’s figure out what’s good for one or two restaurants, and if it’s good for one or two restaurants and we love it that much, let’s figure out a way to make this happen regardless of scale.”
Buffalo Wild Wings’ goal, Carawan says, is to keep current guests happy while building on new innovation platforms, as well as bringing in more recruitment-style targets with fresh platforms and occasions. The chain is going to use this current, constant string of innovation to lure back some longtime followers. “I think it’s apparent that the food that we’re cranking out is way better than what we had in the past,” Carawan says.
He is excited about Buffalo Wild Wings’ All-American Cheeseburger and feels the brand has been over-leveraged with wings in general. By offering wing alternatives, like burgers and chicken sandwiches, Carawan hopes to keep customers coming back. It doesn’t always have to be a “wing night.”
“That builds a new occasion,” he says. “Maybe I get you in for lunch or late night or something else. You can smooth out these spikes we have in the year with March Madness and then NFL football. If we can have not so tall peaks and not so deep valleys, it makes a more viable business platform.”
We are not going to be ‘insert your casual dining brand here’ with a bunch of TVs. We’re going to be a true and honest sports bar and everything that entails.” — Jamie Carawan, Buffalo Wild Wings’ VP of brand menu and culinary.
Carawan says that Buffalo Wild Wings wants to be “best in class” in wings, bar food, sauces, and burgers. “That’s absolutely critical—the best burger in the game,” he says. “Secondly, we need to stabilize our menu, get rid of things that aren’t working, optimize the menu. And lastly, we’re going to accelerate the growth by actually having new innovation platforms and occasions to bring in.”
He recalls that last year Buffalo Wild Wings “embarked on two major moments of reevaluation.” The first one arrived during March Madness. It created a new campaign, brought in fresh uniforms, and put food on updated plateware. The chain also sought out ways to make food better, and did so by introducing new queso, salsa, and classic cocktails
Starting in August and going through fall, the Buffalo Wild Wings team will roll out more food and beverage innovation. Hand-breaded Chicken Tenders, a Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich, and Southern Chicken Sandwich (all beer battered with Lagunitas IPA) will debut in August. New boneless wings arrive in November, along with a Jack Sour cocktail. Other drinks joining the menu through the summer and beyond include a Sauza Blue Silver Paloma, Stone Tropic of Thunder Lager, and Dogfish Head Slightly Mighty IPA.
The kitchen crew at Buffalo Wild Wings will start hand battering chicken tenders and chicken sandwiches in the back of the house, the company said. Riddle says that its beer battered, hand-breaded chicken is going from freezer to fryer, “what any restaurant can do in a week to actually having a standalone dedicated, 100 percent validated, amazing product that we use. We’re hand breading in-store to order. It’s something we’ve never done before. It’s probably the biggest change both culturally and menu-wise that we’ve ever done.”
“All of these [menu offerings] have an attitude to them,” Carawan adds. “They are not for the faint of heart. They’ve got flavor, attitude, size, and great visual appeal. Then moving into the fall, we’ll have two more classic cocktails. We’re going to launch new and improved boneless wings. And in addition to that we’re going old school, back to the original buffalo sauce, just like you remember the first time you had it way back when. That’ll be launching in November.”
In addressing the crowd at the Times Square event, Carawan admitted that the last year had been challenging for him coming into a brand that “had lost its swagger,” he said. “It was down in sales, share, and traffic, and it was really not a fun place to be. In many ways, we had lost our way, but we’re coming out of that.”
Carawan and many on his team relocated to Atlanta. While he says it was a transformative year for him personally, the brand “is also going to be moving very quickly in a transformative way,” he says. “We’ve got very tight, defined positioning. We’re the great American sports bar. For many years we had drifted from that really unique universe to this casual-dining space, and it didn’t really help us. We are not going to be ‘insert your casual dining brand here’ with a bunch of TVs. We’re going to be a true and honest sports bar and everything that entails. So if we’re going to be a sports bar, we’ve got to start acting like a sports bar. And that’s what we intend to do.”