When Sally Smith joined Buffalo Wild Wings in 1994, it was a fledgling regional chain with 35 restaurants.
Under Smith’s leadership, the beer, wings, and sports mecca has transformed into a national powerhouse with 950 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada, and she has aggressive plans to take it global.
“We believe that Buffalo Wild Wings has great potential for international expansion,” Smith said. “We have 13 restaurants in Canada, are opening three restaurants in Mexico, and will open in the Middle East and the Philippines in 2014.”
In addition to opening in targeted overseas economies, the brand is also plotting to nearly double the number of U.S. restaurants to 1,700.
With determination, a little luck, and a signature chicken recipe, Smith is poised to turn the restaurant chain into a global success story.
Buffalo Wild Wings is built around a few core themes that many can relate to, Smith told us. “We offer a good value for our guests in a fun and entertaining atmosphere where friends and family can gather to watch their favourite sporting events,” she said.
While competitors like Chilli’s, TGI Friday’s, and Applebee’s have struggled to differentiate in the casual-dining space, Smith stood out by focusing on the company staples of beer, wings, and sports,
said Dave Donnan, lead partner in A.T. Kearney’s food and beverage practice.
Its franchise locations boast simple, contemporary decor and dozens of flat-screen televisions for convenient sports-viewing. The bar is unusually long for the restaurant industry — a feature that Buffalo Wild Wings says accommodates more customers.
“Smith has fostered a clean, iconic brand image at Buffalo Wild Wings,” Donnan told us. “Sticking to what people love about the brand gives the whole chain a bright, energetic feel.”
She has also capitalised on important trends in the food industry. “Right now, consumers want craft beer and the power to customise their food,” Donnan said. “Buffalo Wild Wings has both through its many draft beers and customisable wing sauces.”
Smith maintains a hands-on leadership style even as the chain expands.
“I like to spend time in the field to make sure the decisions we’re making in the home office are in the best interest of our guests and teams,” she said.
Her involved approach has helped the restaurant chain evolve and pull through difficult transitions, Donnan said.
In 2008, Smith officially changed the name to Buffalo Wild Wings from BW-3, which itself was an homage to the brand’s original name, Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck.
She also updated its logo to provide a more modern feel and changed the decor of the restaurants.
Some chains have floundered under that kind of drastic rebranding, but Smith “has managed to pull Buffalo Wild Wings through these big transitions without losing momentum,” Donnan said.
Shares of Buffalo Wild Wings are up 29% in the past year and reached an all-time high September 30 after analyst Nick Setyan of Wedbush raised the price target, citing stable chicken wing prices and growing customer traffic in restaurants.
Buffalo Wild Wings is the fastest-growing casual dining chain in the U.S. by sales growth, according to a study by Nation’s Restaurant News. In 2013, it drove its estimated sales per unit up nearly 10%, the publication reported.
The chain is also benefitting from a longer-than-usual NFL season this year, Donnan said.
CHALLENGES FOR EXPANSION
Buffalo Wild Wings’ biggest challenge in growing globally will be marketing to cultures that aren’t as fanatical about football as America, Donnan told us.
“Obviously, there are other sports that are popular overseas that people could gather together to watch,” Donnan said. “But many other countries don’t watch sports socially the way people do in the U.S., and watching sports together is a huge reason why people go to Buffalo Wild Wings.”
The chain will also need to make menu adjustments overseas in order to be successful, Donnan said.
But the retailer’s biggest advantage for expansion is its signature chicken wing. “Fortunately for Buffalo Wild Wings, chicken is a food that is popular all over the world,” Donnan said. “They would be more challenged if they specialised in pork or beef products.”
Smith said the company has “active discussions” with developers overseas in order to ensure a smooth transition entering new markets.
ADVICE FOR SUCCESS
Smith, who grew up in the small town of Grand Forks, N.D., and graduated from the University of North Dakota, has been called a “saviour “ for Buffalo Wild Wings. In 1994, she left her job as a tax specialist at KPMG to become CFO for the restaurant chain. After implementing strict budgeting and management, she took the once-struggling wing chain public in 2003.
Reflecting on her own success, she offered the following advice to young people who may follow in her footsteps.
“Education doesn’t come only from school,” Smith said. “Read, volunteer, and value the skills you are learning in your current roles.”
She also said that young people should maintain a positive outlook, even if they don’t like their current job.
“Be curious. Be curious about people and their stories and how they think. Be curious about how things work and whether there are ways to make improvements,” Smith said. “Ask questions of your teachers, of your colleagues, of your friends.”
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