DALLAS-Consistently given high marks for fast growth, the Dallas-based Wingstop expects to top 220 locations in 26 states before the year draws to a close and fly into 2005 with plans for another 125. The fast-track expansion, riding the shirttails of a buyout nearly two years ago, also is bringing the debut of the first new flavor for the single-entree chain, a novelty among the chicken-wing crowd, since its launch in 1994.

Wingstop Restaurants Inc. is relying on franchises to beef up the brand, although this year will bring some additional corporate-owned locations, Andy Howard, EVP of marketing and research and development, tells GSR. The corporation operates seven fast-casual restaurants in Dallas and Houston, and plans to limit its presence to Texas while delegating the hard push for the expansion play to “brand partners” or franchisees.

With 204 locations now up and running, Howard says the 100 to 125 new restaurants in 2005 will be opened in existing markets unless a brand partner surfaces for a “five or more unit” buy-in for an inroad into another state. “It’s a great tribute to our brand when our brand partners come back to build more,” Howard says, adding the goal is to reach 450 restaurants by the end of 2006. In the past month, restaurants have opened in Las Vegas, Omaha, Rancho Cucamonga, CA, Charlotte, NC, and La Marque, TX.

With the expansion stage set, Wingstop picked up a new top-ranking to add to the marquee: the best of breed in the “extra hot sauce” category at an annual cook-off in Buffalo, NY, a mecca for chicken wing aficionados. Competing for the first time at the National Buffalo Wing Festival, Wingstop bagged first place with its “atomic” flavor and two second-place spots, with the “original hot” wing earning the “best traditional hot sauce” category and “garlic parmesan” earning the “best creative sauce” designation.

Wingstop’s eight-flavor lineup includes Cajun, mild, teriyaki, lemon pepper and Hawaiian barbeque, and a ninth is on its way, hickory smoke barbeque–all recipes for success developed in-house that have managed to attract and retain long-time customers like Troy Aikman, who’s now the chain’s official spokesman. In exchange for his testimonial, every Wingstop/Aikman jersey that’s sold drives a donation to the Aikman Foundation, a charitable organization for children.

Dallas restaurateur Antonio Swad founded Wingstop a decade ago in a 1,400-sf inline spot at 1228 Northwest Highway in the Dallas suburb of Garland. The industry had reservations that a single-entree shop could make the grade, but eight years later he sold the 94-restaurant chain to a joint venture between Houston-based Hartz Restaurants International Inc. and Gemini Investors Inc. of Wellesley, MA, which also has a stake in Wingstop’s rival, Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. of Minneapolis.

The new owner, Wingstop Holdings Inc. led by CEO James A. Flynn, didn’t make any change in the headquarters city or the concept–a menu of chicken wings and fresh-cut fries along with a selection of 28 domestic and imported beers and some sides. The eat-in or take-out, made-to-order concept, with a nostalgic aviation-theme decor, has weekday hours of 4 p.m. to midnight and weekend shifts of 11 a.m. to midnight, hours that create strong appeal for customers and operators.

Entrepreneur magazine scored Wingstop as the top-ranked chicken wing restaurant, and gave it a fifth-place spot on the Top 25 new franchise roster. Meanwhile, Restaurant & Institutions ranked it fourth, the only wing chain in the top 10 on its “Top 400 Sales-Growth Leaders” roster. Restaurant Business ranked Wingstop in seventh place on its “Top 50 Growth Chains” and rolled in a third-place spot for increased average unit volume. Turnkey franchises cost $181,800 to $250,900, plus a 5% royalty fee and 2% stipend for advertising.

According to Howard, comp store volume is up 17% from last year, with each location averaging $600,000 annually. The chain’s banner day was Super Bowl Sunday 2004, when 1.2 million wings were sold by the then 150 restaurants.

Howard says there’s been no fallout from the health-conscious crowd. “Because our wings are non-battered and non-breaded, we actually fall into the low-carb craze,” he says. As for its customers, they tend to be the “young and people on the go,” he adds.

Wingstop’s founder, Swad, rose through the ranks from being a dishwasher at 15 years old to restaurant management jobs for companies like Ponderosa Steak House, Smuggler’s Inn and Village Inn Restaurant. His first concept, Pizza Patron, was launched in 1986 and remains his focus today.

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