the north face sangro Buffalo Wild Wings and the triumph of the chicken wing
It’s Tuesday night at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Station 19 in Dinkytown. Across the country, at 732 restaurants just like this, the scene is being repeated by intrepid diners. Thousands have risked their digestive tracks to attempt the Blazin’ Challenge. They didn’t do it for the free T shirt, or the Polaroid photo on the restaurant wall. They did it for the glory.
“It’s a little bit of a clubhouse,” says Allan Hickok, the Twin Cities’ most prominent restaurant consultant. “They’ve got almost a $1 billion market cap, and what do they sell? They sell chicken wings.”
“These little parts, they were almost like a throwaway item,” says Tim Delaney, a sociologist at the State University of New York, Oswego. “To turn them into a commodity item is really a fascinating tale.”
In 2009, for the first time in history, the wholesale price of chicken wings surpassed that of skinless boneless breasts, traditionally the priciest part of the bird. Buffalo Wild Wings now offers boneless wings made of breast meat in a move designed in part to hedge against price gouging by wing suppliers.
There’s no shortage of buyers, with several chains competing to be the McDonald’s of the newly emerging food sector. After Buffalo Wild Wings, the next fastest growing company in the pecking order is Texas based Wingstop, with 475 outlets in 30 states, plus Mexico. There’s also Wing Street (a sister company to Pizza Hut), Wing Zone, World of Wings Caf and Wingery, Wings to Go, and Buffalo Wings N Rings.
“The whole Buffalo wing phenomenon took off some years ago,” says the chicken council’s Richard Lobb. “And it really has shown no signs of slowing down.”
IT ALL STARTED with an Italian mother at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York.
On that now famous morning in 1964, Teressa Bellissimo received an extra meaty shipment of wings at the Italian restaurant she ran with her husband Frank. They looked too plump to dump in the stockpot, so she set them aside for later.
The next day, her son Dominic was tending the bar when a bunch of his friends came by. Dominic asked his mother to make them something to eat that wasn’t on the menu. Teressa’s mind drifted to those meaty chicken wings.
She cut off the tips, sliced the flats from the drumettes, and deep fried the wings, then topped them with a concoction of melted butter, cayenne pepper, and red hot sauce. She dished up sides of blue cheese, sliced up celery, and brought out the newly invented snacks.
Before long, Buffalo style wings began to spread across New York and down the East Coast. When they moved, Buffalonians took their wings with them, to Paco’s Tacos in Boston, and to a bevy of one offs in south Florida, where snowbirds from upstate New York found respite from the winter cold.
In 1975, one of those snowbirds founded the nation’s first wing chain. Edmund J. Hauck spread Wings N Curls from Florida to Indiana and California. As he built his empire, Hauck added a new twist: In addition to the traditional cayenne hot pepper and butter, Hauck dipped his wings in several other flavors of sauce.
Suddenly, Buffalo wings were everywhere. Teressa Bellissimo cooked up a batch on the Today Show for Bryant Gumbel.
In 1983, Hooters made the Buffalo wing a staple of its menu. Hooters tweaked the original Buffalo recipe, coating wings in batter and frying them to a crisp before adding its own cayenne sauce. They also added waitresses in orange hot pants.
By 1990, fast food outlets wanted a piece of the wing business. McDonald’s Mighty Wings came deep fried and spicy. Not to be outdone, Kentucky Fried Chicken got into the mix the following year, dishing out its own version, simply named the Hot Wing. Pizza chains were next to join in the craze: Domino’s in 1994, Pizza Hut in 1995.
By 2001, Buffalo wings were a big enough deal to star in a Hollywood movie. In Osmosis Jones, Bill Murray plays a man training for the National Buffalo Wing Festival.
A fictional construct, the festival didn’t really exist, but a year after the film’s debut, a Buffalo resident named Drew Cerza decided to bring the Wing Festival to life. Now every Labor Day weekend, Cerza presides over the festival as his alter ego: the Wing King, a velvet caped character who wears a giant foam chicken wing hat. Thousands of people travel to Buffalo each year to celebrate.
The Buffalo wing had transcended lunch buffets and become something more akin to a lifestyle choice.
“And that’s when you really start noticing that you have some traction,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group. “It wasn’t just an item on a menu, but restaurants became dedicated to the serving of just that food.”
THE MAN BEST positioned to capitalize on the country’s wing fixation makes for an unlikely champion for gluttonous eating. Olympic team.
In 1981, Disbrow traveled to Kent State University to judge an ice skating event. There he met up with his old friend Scott Lowery. The two wanted to eat some wings like they used to have at the Anchor Bar when they lived in Buffalo.
In 1982, the two friends opened Buffalo Wild Wings Weck in a dump of a warehouse just a few blocks off Ohio State University’s campus. In addition to wings, they served Buffalo beef sandwiches on kimmelweck, a German roll, hence the third “W” in the restaurant’s name.
From the beginning, the idea was to build a place to watch sports. Students christened their loud, chaotic hangout “BW 3” or “B dubs” for short.
“If you look in a Buffalo Wild Wings, it’s got more in common with the New York Stock Exchange than a restaurant,” says John King, chief communications officer for Fallon advertising in Minneapolis, who keeps tabs on the chain. “It’s an environment where everybody kind of wins.”
Six months in, Disbrow and Lowery added a third partner: Ohio State freshman Mark Lutz, who dropped out of school and plowed his $25,000 tuition money into the new restaurant.
The partners worked furiously for ten years, opening six more locations in Ohio, Indiana, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where they liked to ski.
In 1991, they began franchising, mostly to former customers who thought hanging out at a replica of their favorite college bar was vastly preferable to growing up and getting a real job.
Then Disbrow’s love life became an unexpected boon to his company. In 1992, Disbrow married Dede Hensel, of Minneapolis, an old flame from his figure skating days.