- Buffalo Wild Wings is kicking off its first major round of changes to revitalize the chain as it gears up for March Madness this week.
- Changes include new employee uniforms, updated menus, new advertising, and the end of paper boats for chicken wings.
- The revamp comes just over a year after Buffalo Wild Wings was acquired by Inspire Brands, the parent company of Arby’s and Sonic.
- With the changes, Buffalo Wild Wings hopes to rebrand as a hangout spot and win over millennial customers, who have created problems for the chain in the past.
- The target customer is a younger sports fan “who really values that time with his friends. And as he’s getting older and life gets more complicated, those moments that you can just go hang out with your friends get fewer and fewer,” Inspire Brands CEO Paul Brown told Business Insider.
Buffalo Wild Wings is launching its first round of changes as the chain gears up for March Madness this week.
Customers swarming to Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the NCAA college basketball tournament can expect a new advertising campaign, new menu items, revamped employee uniforms, and the disappearance of the well-known paper wing boats.
“It’s a lot of changes … a lot of work, a lot of things being stood up in our busiest month of the year,” Inspire Brands CEO Paul Brown told Business Insider on Monday. “This weekend will really be the busiest weekend of Buffalo Wild Wings’ year.”
Brown continued: “We said, ‘Look, if we’re going to launch it, let’s relaunch it when we have as many people in our restaurants as possible.'”
Brown led the charge in acquiring Buffalo Wild Wings in a $US2.9 billion deal in February 2018, creating Inspire Brands. The company has spent the past year analysing what went wrong at Buffalo Wild Wings, which was struggling with slumping sales and a high-profile battle between executives and an activist investor.
Now, Brown said, Inspire Brands is finally ready to make the changes needed to turn the chain around.
Frank vs. Sean
Buffalo Wild Wings’ guiding principle for its turnaround required figuring out who the chain’s core customers are and who the future target customer needs to be, according to Brown.
The company ended up naming both of these figures: Frank, the current customer, who is older and may live in the suburbs with his spouse and kids, and Sean, basically a younger version of Frank who Buffalo Wild Wings still needs to win over. Think Mac vs. PC, if both were men, 20 years apart, who just want to spend more time with their bros.
“Guys want to turn good times with friends into great times with brothers,” Brown said.
Buffalo Wild Wings is ditching any pretense of being a casual-dining chain and instead doubling down on making itself an appealing and convenient hangout spot. Food should be easy to snack on and share, the environment must be lively, and space needs to be plentiful – no reservations required. It is a philosophy that goes beyond shifting toward the typical trappings of a sports bar; in a handful of new stores, the chain has a room where customers can play video games.
The target customer, the younger and hipper Sean, is “someone who really values that time with his friends,” Brown said. “And as he’s getting older, and life gets more complicated, those moments that you can just go hang out with your friends get fewer and fewer, right? Farther and farther away.”
“Sports is, as much as anything, an excuse to get together and hang out with your friends,” Brown added.
Winning over millennials
One of Buffalo Wild Wings’ major issues is that younger Americans – aka the Seans of the world – haven’t seen the appeal of the chain in its current form, as a place to meet up or to do anything else.
In May 2017, then-CEO Sally Smith wrote in a letter to shareholders that the chain was struggling in part because millennials were uninterested in not only the chain but also the casual-dining industry as a whole.
This week is Buffalo Wild Wings’ chance to appeal to these younger customers who have little interest in the chain. The ultimate goal is to get them to visit, perhaps for the first time, and keep them coming back, all while avoiding alienating its current customer base.
The game plan is to flood locations with a flurry of millennial-centric changes, centered on changing trends and geared toward providing a more interactive experience.
Buffalo Wild Wings announced a partnership with the fantasy sports company DraftKings in September and a new bracket competition this week. In restaurants, waiters will be wearing T-shirts instead of their former jersey-style uniforms.
There is an updated menu with cocktails such as the Moscow mule and the old-fashioned. The burger recipe has changed to use fresh beef instead of frozen. And Buffalo Wild Wings is killing its plastic ramekins and paper boats for wings, which produce nearly a billion pieces of paper and plastic waste annually, in favour of metal trays.
“Frank loved the boats,” Brown said. “They just don’t convey, necessarily, the kind of atmosphere that the next generation of customer is looking for.”
The future of Buffalo Wild Wings
Brown said another round of changes is in the works at Buffalo Wild Wings and launching in the fall.
New store designs are coming. In December, Buffalo Wild Wings opened two redesigned locations that included Xbox and PlayStation consoles, as well as new cocktails and self-service beer on tap. Elements of the new model are being tested across the chain, and franchisees will be offered the option to remodel their stores.
Sports betting is another area that Brown is keeping an eye on as the chain emphasises interactivity and doubles down on fantasy sports.
“We’re watching very closely,” Brown said. “It is going to play out, I believe, fairly slowly. … Certain states are going to do it in various ways. But we do believe, depending on how things shape up, it’s a role that we can play. Certainly, [it] would bring a nice level of interactivity back into the restaurants.”
What customers are seeing in stores is only part of the story. As Brown did in the case of Arby’s turnaround, Buffalo Wild Wings is working to retrain every employee and plans to have 80,000 people go through the training by June.
The menu is evolving, with plans to tweak beer offerings and reexamine every recipe as the chain tries to improve food quality. A test of hand-breaded and hand-battered chicken is rolling out this summer. Brown said the chain hopes to ultimately create a chicken sandwich that tops Chick-fil-A’s offerings.
Even Buffalo Wild Wings’ wings themselves aren’t necessarily safe.
“We are looking at our boneless wings, saying, ‘Do we have the best?’ And if wings is in your name, call me crazy, I think we should be the best at that product,” Brown said, adding that the chain is also reexamining its traditional wings.
“I think it’s unclear whether we are the best,” Brown continued. “There are a lot of customers that believe we are. That’s great, but I think there are a lot of potential customers that think we could be better, so we want to look and see.”
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