Buffalo Wild Wings is now owned by Roark, the parent company of Arby's. / Buffalo Wild Wings Buffalo Wild Wings is now owned by Roark, the parent company of Arby's. / Buffalo Wild Wings

Secret Ingredient: Buffalo Wild Wings’ Faster, Smaller and Cheaper Brand

As restaurants work to stand out in an increasingly competitive marketplace, big restaurant chains are diversifying their offerings to appeal to a different audience. This is the second in a Skift Table series dedicated to the stories behind the small names.

Don’t miss the first, spotlighting Cracker Barrel spin-off Holler & Dash.

The common sense solution for languishing chain restaurants in a fast-casual world: scale down. Cut the massive square footage for smaller footprints, the service time from leisurely to rapid, and the menu from a vast selection of items to a concise theme centered on a signature item. A second solution: sell to the highest bidder in order to maintain the brand.

Buffalo Wild Wings, which recently announced its sale to Arby’s parent company Roark, had a particularly rough 2017. Historically high costs for chicken wings led to decreased margins on its namesake item which accounts for 31 percent of overall sales. A proxy battle initiated by investor Marcato Capital Management resulted in the ouster of CEO Sally Smith, who had presided over the company for two decades. Under the terms of its sale, Buffalo Wild Wings will continue to operate as an independent brand.

“Buffalo Wild Wings is one of the most distinctive and successful entertainment and casual dining restaurant companies in America,” Arby’s CEO Paul Brown said in a statement, issued after the sale announcement. (Brown will also assume this role at Buffalo Wild Wings.) Given this information, it seems management’s plans for the company are to double-down on what’s working.

Enter B-Dubs Express

Amid its tumultuous year, Buffalo Wild Wings rolled out a new fast casual strategy, long in the making, in Edina, Minnesota. Smith had long argued that declining sales were not, as Marcato accused, a result of poor leadership. In a letter to investors she identified changing tastes, slowing mall traffic, and declining sports viewership as the company’s biggest obstacles. (At least she didn’t blame the NFL?) A new fast casual spin-off was developed in hopes that it would, in the short term, trim losses and increase financial projections, and in the long term break out into a sustainable growth mechanism, redefining the brand. That concept, B-Dubs Express, opened in late July.

The product remains the same, but the model is built for a new audience. B-Dubs Express proudly piggybacks on the name and brand recognition of its big brother, betting that its declining fortunes have less to do with the food and more to do with the way a new generation eats. Store locations maintain the feel of what made Buffalo Wild Wings work in the first place: the same big-screen TVs, draft beer, and over 20 signature wing sauces that the company has touted for years. So, what’s missing? The wait. B-Dubs Express aims to get food to the table in less than 10 minutes, even quicker if customers use an app to order ahead. Perhaps the concept’s biggest potential growth area is through delivery services, which it provides through an exclusive deal with DoorDash. This partnership could create a large percentage of customers who never set foot in the store at all — good news for a chain that seems to see more success from its dipping sauces than its DirectTV.

While the decision to scale down for a modern market is a good one, it is far from a sure bet. There’s more to millennial dining than app integration and exposed brick walls – quality of product is paramount, as well as the “culinary cred” factor. B-Dubs Express doesn’t have either of those. What it does have: a strong brand recognition and the natural momentum of focusing on wings, the most popular menu item in the country.

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