Issue Spring 12
Wings Etc. demonstrates its belief that in the restaurant business; “quality products, quirky atmosphere and guest service is everything” by serving a menu known for its quality, maintaining a “good vibes,” environment at each unit, and by hiring upbeat, cheerful servers, according to its founder, JimWeaver.
When people work for an accounting firm, they have a pretty good idea of what that will entail. They can expect to spend their days working with a lot of numbers, as well as receive a steady paycheck and have job security – after all, accounting is the backbone of almost every business. There are some who would not see these as exciting or fun aspects of a job, but it sure gives parents relief when their children choose such a stable career. Opening a restaurant, on the other hand, does not have that same level of job security. But when Jim Weaver combined his background in accounting with his “desire to venture out on his own,” Wings Etc. was born.
Weaver had been working for a public accounting firm for 14 years when he decided it was time to test his entrepreneurial spirit in theearly 1990s. Buffalo wings and sports bars were still fairly new to most people, but they were increasing in popularity and he wanted to open his own “wings joint” because he saw opportunity. In 1994, Weaver left his stable employment and opened his first Wings Etc. restaurant in Mishawaka, Ind. It was an idea whose time had come.
“I liked the idea of owning my own company, but I wasn’t sure running a restaurant could pay the bills unless it was an overwhelmingsuccess,” he says. Weaver developed the Wings Etc. concept as a “family-oriented sports bar, specializing in Buffalo wings and multiple TVs, but with a kids menu and a fun, off-beat atmosphere.” It made a big mark in the local market, and in 1998 he opened the second location. Subsequently, in 2004, he sold his first franchise, which opened in Elkhart, Ind.
“The food and service drive this business,” Weaver says. “We are famous for our juicy, crispy made-to-order wings, but we also wood-smoke our own ribs day in house. These are full-service restaurants, but they’re not white tablecloth – they’re fun.”
Weaver indicated the entire Wings Etc. system – 20 units strong at this point – now sells “30 tons of wings per week. That’s an average of a ton and a half per unit. I never envisioned that in the early days,” he states almost in amazement.
The company’s 20 locations currently include 14 in Indiana, two in Illinois and four in Michigan – and as indicated later in this article, Weaver is “pursuing opportunities for expansion in other markets as well.”
Appetizing and Affordable
Wings Etc. focuses on maintaining a high level of service and quality products, not only to ensure the success of its locations, but also to develop a fun atmosphere at each site to set itself apart from the competition, Weaver explains.
“Service is everything,” he says. “But there has to be good vibes at each location so they become destinations that our guests fall in love with. Our servers are friendly and upbeat and are encouraged to remember customers’ names, which goes a long way toward creating customer loyalty.”
The company wants service to remain consistent between the corporate-owned and franchised sites, so it provides extensive training to franchisees during the startup process. Corporate staff members partner with franchisees throughout the opening phase and assist with staff training. Corporate representatives also regularly audit franchisee operations to ensure their staffs present themselves well, use only authorized products and that ticket times are consistently maintained.
“The work of the staff keeps customers coming back day-in and day-out, so it’s important that we have a pleasant atmosphere and the best people possible,” Weaver says. “With franchisees, we keep the start-up costs as low as possible and we support them because we want them to be able to keeptheir doors open and pay their bills, even in an economic downturn.”
Weaver understands, however, that menu quality is the other major aspect of attracting repeat customers, and he believes in keeping themenu fresh. Wings Etc. has six corporate-owned stores, and those sites are where menu development occurs. If anyone at the corporate level, or among the franchisee community, has a new idea for a menu item, a kitchen in one of the corporate sites will create it, and then test it in three or four other corporate locations. Wings Etc. gets feedback from customers and employees, and then establishes kitchen operational procedures, with accompanying presentations of the new items. If the items are viable menu additions, corporate will roll out the items to all of the Wings Etc. locations with suggested pricing.
“We want every item on the menu to be affordable, look good and be appetizing,” he says. “Wraps are a fairly new addition to our menu, and we’ve had a very positive response. We’ve also developed a new salad line, as well as continual tweaking of our appetizers and children’s menu offerings. Our goal is to offer a good selection across the board without making any item so complex that it burdens or over complicates the flow of operations within the kitchen area.
“With the sauces for our wings, for example, we can make the selection greater and that doesn’t create problems in the kitchen,” he continues. “Our focus is maintaining consistency in our core products, but we also like to vary the menu as much as possible without complicating things. In addition to our food, we have a great beer selection – there are at least 40 different varieties at each location. We also allow for some regional differences and there is a variation process for our franchisees if they prove a menu item is good for their area.”
Weaver notes Wings Etc. has seen an uptick in its business, but it was not immune to the difficulties that resulted from the economic downturn; from 2008 to early 2010 was the hardest time, he says. Banks weren’t loaning money during the recession, so potential franchisees couldn’t get financing. Instead, Weaver and his two active partners focused on keeping the existing locations open and busy.
“We wanted to keep control over everything we already had,” he says. “The price of wings went up, so we emphasized some of our other items and our wrap program has been a big hit. We tried to push more profitable items so we could keep portion sizes the same. We also offer daily food and drinkspecials, but we avoid couponing at all cost. Even during the slow economy, we focused on giving customers the same full-service experience and great pricing without making them resort to fast food.”
Wings Etc. is back in growth mode, he notes, and is promoting itself through ads in industry-specific publications and via social media. Weaver believes that with its quality processes in place, Wings Etc.will be set to pursue other markets as the business picks up. Wings Etc. has just signed several deals, another Illinois and the company’s first venture into North Carolina. He still sees a lot of opportunity in Michigan and would like to expand into Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. With the new deal in North Carolina, Weaver believes that South Carolina and Georgia are only a matter of time. He explains Wings Etc. is moving forward strategically in an effort to deliver the same level of service at each location and to ensure its distribution system remains consistent.
“I am so proud of the progress we’ve achieved after starting with just one restaurant,” he says. “We have 20 units now and we will build that into more but keep our hometown roots because all franchisees are local owners and operators. Wings Etc. is this quirky little wings joint and I definitely see this expanding into additional markets.”
Good news for Wings Etc. customers… bad news for chickens!