Sally Smith never expected to be CEO of America’s fastest-growing restaurant chain.
When the executive joined Buffalo Wild Wings in 1994, it was a fledgling Minneapolis chain with 35 restaurants.
As business began to grow, the board hired a new president and CEO.
But the man they picked never showed up for his first day of work.
“He had decided to stay with his current company, but hadn’t bothered telling us,” Smith said in a telephone interview with Business Insider. “The board told me, ‘well I guess you’re going to have to do it now.'”
Smith’s unlikely promotion was a turning point for Buffalo Wild Wings.
Under her leadership, Buffalo Wild Wings has grown to more than 1,000 restaurants. At a time when casual dining sales are slumping, the chain posted an impressive 6.4% sales gain last quarter.
Not Your Standard CEO
Smith, 57, was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She graduated from the University of South Dakota, earning a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting.
The new grandmother is more likely to be found reading a novel in her free time rather than watching sports like her customers. She’s been in the same book club for almost 20 years.
When she’s feeling sporty, Smith enjoys golfing and riding her bike.
Before work, when she’s in town, Smith treks three blocks to her daughter’s house to see her grandson, who just turned one.
Smith, who has an easygoing manner, said being CEO is much more public than she imagined.
“I’m constantly being asked to give presentations to colleges and business groups as the company grows and our restaurant is a part of the community,” she said. “As the role became more public, I had to rely on my team to take care of the details.”
She spends many days enjoying a meal at Buffalo Wild Wings. Her favourite menu item is the chicken tender wrap with spicy garlic sauce.
Despite a recession and an overall slump in casual dining, the Minneapolis-based brand has grown from 300 restaurants to more than 1,000 in the past 10 years.
How did the company do it?
By capitalising on the fact that many customers were too broke to buy tickets for sporting events, CEO Sally Smith told Business Insider.
“We had a lot of customers during the downturn who came to our restaurants because of the cost of going to the game,” Smith said. “We did a really nice job of staying current and aggressively remodeling our restaurants to have a stadium look and feel.”
While casual dining restaurants in general work to differentiate in the space, Smith stood out by focusing on the company staples of beer, wings, and sport.
Its franchise locations have 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 also capitalised on important trends in the food industry, giving patrons the power to customise their orders. The chain was an early adopter of craft beer, which is now taking over the industry.
Planning For Success
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.
About 57% of Buffalo Wild Wings’ customers are male, but it also has a strong female demographic.
The company has been investing in its sauce lab, which invents limited-time flavours like Korean barbecue and ghost pepper. These flavours tend sell out quickly, according to Smith.
Customer service has also been a recent focus.
The company started hiring “guest captains” who are responsible for changing TV channels. They were key to the brand’s March Madness strategy, vice president of marketing Bob Ruhland told Business Insider.
“This person isn’t burdened with cleaning tables and delivering food,” Ruhland said. “They make sure that TVs are on the right channel and are going to be really key during March Madness when people are following specific teams.”
Building Her Team
As Smith spends more time on the road, she increasingly has to rely on her team to take care of the details.
“Sometimes I’m in restaurants three times a day, other times it’s only once a week,” she said.
She says her approach to hiring goes beyond technical skills.
“I look for someone who is a team player and will fit into our culture,” Smith said. “An important part of this is someone being passionate about something that isn’t his or her job and has a general curiosity about the world.”
Smith says that when she’s interviewing candidates, she focuses largely on factors outside of work.
“You can usually tell if someone’s a good fit from the stories people tell about the experiences in their lives,” Smith said. “Sometimes people who come in with ideas unrelated to restaurants can bring something new to the table.”
Buffalo Wild Wings is currently doing an aggressive overseas expansion. New markets include the Phillipines, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia.
Buffalo Wild Wings is also investing in its two emerging brand concepts.
PizzaRev is a small, Los Angeles-based chain that creates custom, fresh-baked pizzas in minutes. It is also invested in Rusty Taco, a fast-casual gourmet taco franchise based in Texas.
To drive sales at Buffalo Wild Wings, the company is investing in a new lunch menu.
Smith says she expects Buffalo Wild Wings to grow to as many as 1,700 locations.
She expects to stay with the chain for the remainder of her career.
“I love what I do and have been so fortunate to see the business develop and grow,” Smith said. “I’ll probably retire from this job.”
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