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Music drives traffic at Wild Wing Cafe

After 24 years of patchwork-style growth, Wild Wing Cafe is getting serious about expansion. The chain has debuted its first-ever prototype design and, true to the brand’s roots, live entertainment is critical to the format. From the low-rise stage equipped with a special VIP entrance for musicians to an oversized video wall comprised of more than 20 screens, Wild Wing Cafe takes its motto — “Where Great Food Rocks” — seriously.

“People can go anywhere to get food,” said David Leonardo, chief development officer, Wild Wing Cafe, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. “We like to create great, quality, fresh food, but also be entertaining.”

Founded in 1990 in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Wild Wing Cafe began as a single location that combined good food — with an emphasis on fresh chicken wings — with quality music entertainment. Indeed, Hootie & The Blowfish and Zac Brown Band gained acclaim playing at the restaurant. Founders Cecil and Dianne Crowley grew the format, eventually offering franchise opportunities.

In 2012, investment group Axum Capital Partners, Charlotte, North Carolina, purchased the company with an eye toward expansion. (The founders have retained partial ownership.)

Wild Wing Cafe’s new prototype will guide future development of the 33-unit casual eatery as it seeks to grow to nearly 75 locations by 2016, mainly in its core southeastern market. The first restaurant to showcase the new look opened in March, in Asheville, North Carolina, which was followed by one in Statesboro, Georgia. Now under construction is a location in Pooler, Georgia. (Currently, 13 units are corporately owned and 20 franchised. )

While Wild Wing Cafe’s menu has expanded over the years, chicken wings in assorted flavors remain its signature offering. And live music remains central to its DNA and appeal, particularly in the later evening hours when the bar and music scene rev up.

“A goal [of the prototype] was to make the stage a center focus and an attraction,” said Leonardo, who came on board after the company was acquired by Axum Capital Partners, bringing experience from Burger King, Wendy’s and Arby’s. “We like to promote local bands and singers.”

The stage does double duty. When bands aren’t playing, it’s used for karaoke, trivia games and even bingo. Wild Wing Cafe uses a central talent agency for entertainment bookings so as not to burden local owners.

Because Wild Wing Cafe has grown largely by converting existing spaces, its footprint varies, ranging from 4,500 sq. ft. to 11,000 sq. ft. The new prototype sets the ideal at 7,200 sq. ft. to 7,400 sq. ft., with seating for 250. It includes a two-sided bar serving both indoor and al fresco diners. Glass garage doors can close in the brick patio side of the bar in bad weather. Blue and red drive the color scheme. A new option is a rooftop bar, which select sites will boast.

The company is open to all opportunities.

“We still feel there is lots of commercial real estate available,” said Leonardo. “We are not limited to being a freestanding prototype.”

Wild Wing Cafe is also big on sports. The prototype includes a memorabilia wall for local teams and numerous TVs hanging overhead. And the video wall “will be really cool for the big games and will brings lots of customers in,” predicts Leonardo.

Wild Wing Cafe prefers 1.7- to 2-acre sites, with 90 to 110 parking spaces. Ground-up costs range from $1.5 million to $1.9 million, while a conversion can go from $500,000 to $1.3 million.

Average annual revenue per store is about $3.4 million, higher than the typical franchise restaurant, according to Leonardo. Wild Wing Cafe’s ideal location has a population of 100,000 and household income of $50K-plus within an 11-minute drive.

“We don’t want to put a lot of stores in a market,” explained Leonardo. “We like to be closer to a residential area, more so than just be a tourist attraction. We get the moms in with our fresh food and value prices, and when they leave the young professional crowd comes.”

Laura Klepacki is a contributing editor to Chain Store Age.

© 2014