Chain Profile: WOW Café & Wingery

"New Orleans Inspired, Globally Desired"
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Ten-year-old WOW has carefully honed a multi-prototype personality. It operates as a full-service casual-dining restaurant with a vibrant, sporting event-fueled bar scene (shown here at a corporate store in Mandeville, La.); a fast-casual café, its original concept; and a high-volume, fast-growing QSR in nontraditional locales. Photo by Geovanni Velasquez, Black and Geauld Photography
WOW Café & Wingery turns 10 this year and is flying high into its second decade. Offering a fun, upbeat casual-dining atmosphere with plenty of well-placed flat-screen TVs throughout, the eatery offers a menu of wings, tenders, wraps, over-sized salads, shrimp, burgers, quesadillas, fajitas and New Orleans specialties such as gumbo and red beans and rice. Sauces are a specialty here, as well, with a line-up of 20 proprietary wing sauces and dressings offered and cross-utilized throughout the menu.

Having passed the 50-unit mark in 2010, WOW (which stands for World of Wings) anticipates hitting 75 units or more this year and is making some key changes designed to facilitate rapid growth. It's introducing a new free-standing full-service prototype, putting bigger emphasis on its bar business, updating its trade dress, putting more QSR units in nontraditional locations and tweaking its menu to introduce new flavors and tap new opportunities to strengthen its positioning.

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Founded in December 2001 by CEO Paul Ballard, who brought on brothers Steven and Scott Ballard as co-presidents, WOW began as a limited-menu, fast-casual operation designed to appeal to both families and young professionals. Housed in a 1,300-sq.-ft. strip center endcap in the New Orleans suburb of Covington, La., the first unit's service model was and still is café-style — customers order at the counter and meals are delivered to the tables several minutes later.

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"We had that unit operating for about three years before we were able to purchase a stand-alone restaurant in nearby Metairie, La., which had been an old hamburger concept," says Steven Ballard, president. "Whereas the first unit offered a few wines and bottled beers and had no liquor license, we went to a full-service model with a full bar in the second location. That added a whole new element to our business,"

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Adding new elements and remaining nimble have proven to be keys to WOW's success. Today, the company goes to market with three distinct prototypes:

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  • Café: The original prototype, ranging from 1,800 to 2,500 sq. ft., 60 to 70 seats with small 10-seat full-service bar. Primarily in strip center locations, but also in some colleges/universities.
  • QSR: Typically 500 to 1,000 sq. ft. and located in malls, on college campuses or arena settings with shared common seating areas.
  • Full Service: Historically ranging from 2,800 to 4,000 sq. ft. with seating for 120 in the dining area and 20 at the full-service bar. Mostly endcaps in strip centers, but some freestanding locations.

Of its 52 current units, three — all in the New Orleans area — are company owned while the rest are franchised. Eight units are the original café prototype, 22 are full service and 22 are QSR. "The café model was the genesis of our brand, but we've transitioned primarily to the full-service restaurant and QSR model in nontraditional locations,O Ballard says. We do have some universities that still want a café-style format, so we continue to offer that in some nontraditional segments. But our real focus for the future is on QSR and full service."

Getting QSR Right
WOW's entry into the QSR arena came about as the result of a licensing agreement with foodservice management company Sodexo. The Ballard brothers, all of whom are graduates of Tulane University in New Orleans, were approached by the school about working with Sodexo to open a unit in a new campus food court. The success of that project led to Sodexo signing on in 2005 to develop up to 100 WOW Café & Wingery units on college campuses and in other noncommercial venues it manages across the country.

"The folks at Tulane liked our concept and asked Sodexo to put us in because we're a New Orleans brand. They wanted to give the students a New Orleans experience. We worked with C&T Design and Equipment on ways to pare down the menu and create a QSR model," Ballard says. "It wasn't that hard because we came from a café model, which isn't too dissimilar, so we didn't have to do too much critical thinking."

Soon after aligning with Sodexo, WOW was approached to provide QSR service in the New Orleans arena for Hornets basketball games. "We were the first outside vendor to come into the arena, three years after Hurricane Katrina. That was a whole different ball game: We now had to mass produce food, non-stop, in a two-and-a-half hour time window. It made us push the envelope a little harder on the QSR model, but we were able to get it right and became the number one vendor at the arena in sales and satisfaction," Ballard says.

Shifting into QSR mode and getting it right did require some key changes in back-of-the-house operations and equipment technology. Originally a fresh, made-to-order concept with seven- to eight-minute minimum ticket times, greater speed and efficiency were now paramount. "C&T helped us identify ways in which we could maintain the quality of our food and the integrity of what we do with also being able to stage and hold foods for quick service," Ballard says.

Re-Concepting Operations
The typical WOW Café & Wingery kitchen set-up, regardless of prototype style, now incorporates the changes made to adapt to the arena's need for speed and other lessons learned along the way to enable greater production efficiency and faster service. "We went to holding and staging when we entered the QSR segment, but at the same time we were expanding our regular full-service menu. We've added a lot of appetizers and burgers, and we've embraced more of our New Orleans heritage by adding specialties like gumbo, seafood dishes, and red beans and rice. So we needed to make changes to accommodate that, as well," Ballard says. "At one time the main cook, who we call the board worker, had to touch about 80 percent of all items that came out of the kitchen. That just wasn't efficient any more."

One key change was to re-concept the expediting station, once a small open window to the kitchen from the bar, but now redesigned as an enclosed area behind the bar. "We opened up the pass-through from what was maybe a 4- or 5-ft. single-tier area with a heat lamp to a large 7- to 8-ft. double pass-through area for hot foods and a second, smaller pass-through for cold items," says Kevin Brezette, WOW's project manager at C&T. "Where they once had wait staff funneling in to a small, chaotic area with insufficient room for all of the plates coming out, they now have a large, open area that allows servers to get in and out smoothly and serve patrons more quickly."

Beyond larger pass-throughs, the expediting areas are now also equipped to serve as holding stations for items like tortilla chips, non-fried appetizers, soups, sauces, dressings and side dishes. "Previously, if you needed an order of nachos, we'd cut them from raw corn tortillas and drop them in the fryer to order. Same with our homemade potato chips. Now, by equipping the expediting station with holding drawers we're able to stage those items. And we have steam tables there to hold sides, including corn and red beans and rice, so servers can grab their plates from the pass-through, finish them with items from the expo area and get them out. It's helped a lot for speeding up service and taking pressure off the kitchen," Ballard says.

While they may vary by space constraints in some locations and by volume needs, WOW's kitchens today are divided into four stations, each manned by one employee during busy shifts. The objective was to create operations that were efficient and easy to duplicate as the chain grew, and also to simplify kitchen tasks and shorten training times.

WOW's four-station kitchen set-up now includes:

  • Main Board. Main menu items such as sandwich wraps, burgers, fajitas and ribs are prepared here. The station is equipped with a 68-inch refrigerated pizza prep table, a 48-inch flat top with two burners and an oven, and a convection microwave (in higher-volume stores) or salamander for toasting and melting sandwiches. "We broil all of our own chicken and make our own ribs in the oven," Ballard says. "We use the flat top for everything from heating and toasting wraps and Texas toast sandwiches to sautéing Philly cheese steaks and fajitas. We'll expand it to 68 inches in bigger full-service stores." WOW's burgers have traditionally been frozen patties that are char-grilled, but the company is transitioning to new freshly hand-crafted burgers cooked on the flat top.
  • Wing Toss Station. Here's where wings, tenders and boneless wings, which together comprise some 49 percent of sales systemwide (35 percent in full-service units), are tossed to order in the guests' choice of sauce. The station typically includes a fried-food holding station with heat lamp and timer; racks of stainless steel bowls for tossing product in sauces to order, and the full lineup of WOW's signature sauces held in squirt bottles. "We've tried pumps and every other style of sauce dispenser, but we realized we were losing a lot of sauce every night when we cleaned out the pumps. We tried ladles and we had over-portioning. So we've settled on squirt bottles as the most efficient solution," Ballard says.
  • Fry Station. Breading and frying is done here. The typical store has three connected fryers, each with 60-pound vats and self-filtering mechanisms. Some have dumping stations and some don't, depending on space. "A lot of the university locations will add a dumping station here because they don't have enough space for the separate fried-food holding station," he says. "Or, we may have so much volume going into the fried food station that we need the extra dump station just for French fries."
  • Salad and Appetizer Station. All components of menu items prepared here are held in what's typically a 42- or 48-inch refrigerated deli unit with a pizza prep board. This station also includes a microwave and Panini press for preparation of items such as quesadillas, some side dishes and Panini sandwiches.

While the revamped operations and equipment changes have impacted efficiency and enabled the chain to grow as both a QSR and a full-service restaurant company, value engineering is an ongoing process. "We've developed an equipment list and, working with the WOW team, specify every piece of their equipment. It's constantly changing to keep up with their needs," Brezette says. "Holding fried foods, for example, has been an ever-changing process to accommodate the space constraints of different venues and the volume needs of different units. We're always looking for and testing out new solutions that might work better than what we have now."

Up Ahead: Fresh Look, New Prototype
Heading into its second decade, WOW Café & Wingery is working to keep its concept, menu and atmosphere fresh and focused on growth. Much of its expansion will come on the QSR side, where the formula for success has been well honed over the past few years.

Of the 25 to 30 new stores expected to open this year, in fact, most will be QSRs on college campuses and in malls, according to Ballard. But the company also has aggressive plans to take the full-service side of its business to new heights, including:

  • New serviceware. Entrees and gourmet salad plates and bowls in full-service units will soon transition from the current melamine plastic used to durable white stoneware. "For salads, in particular, the stoneware bowls freeze and stay cold whereas melamine doesn't. It will enhance both the quality and the guest experience to get a nicely chilled bowl with your salad," Ballard says. Flatware is also being upgraded to a higher quality, heavier weight product than the current stamped-out stainless.
  • Trade dress revamp. Still in the early planning stages, a new interior design in the works will, according to Ballard, more clearly define the concept. Its traditional TV/sporting event entertainment emphasis will be maintained, but minimized in dining areas. "It'll be there, but not quite as in-your-face as it has been. We'll focus on having the bar area be more high-energy and in the dining room may raise the TVs a bit more or have them appear only during big events." The dining rooms will continue to have nice, intimate booths, an open floor plan suited to serving large groups and a bright, fun atmosphere, "but a more traditional casual-dining atmosphere than we currently have." In addition, WOW's New Orleans heritage will be played up more directly both on the menu and in the décor, particularly at the bar. "We may do some gas lanterns, change out the current granite-top bar to a warmer, traditional wood bar, and go to a horseshoe bar to foster a feel of community," Ballard says. "We'll probably also do some tile work around the base of the bar. The changes will be subtle, but anyone who's familiar with New Orleans will recognize the connection."
    • New prototype. The company's biggest current project is development of a new, significantly larger freestanding prototype in its home market. "We're consolidating our original café unit and another existing full-service unit here into an outparcel in front of a major new lifestyle shopping development," Ballard says. "It will be situated alongside an Olive Garden and a Texas Roadhouse. We'll continue to develop our smaller, in-line full-service restaurants using elements of this new prototype, but this is something really new and exciting. And as a corporate store it will double as a great training facility for our franchisees."

    Ballard expects the land purchase to be completed this spring and construction to begin in December or January.

    At 5,000 sq. ft. and more than 200 seats, the new prototype will be nearly double the size of most existing in-line full-service units. In addition, while there's no separation between bar and dining room in most existing units, the new prototype gives the bar a life of its own. Physically separated from the dining area, it features the new horseshoe bar and covered outdoor seating just off the bar area.

    "We're not as much a bar as we are a restaurant, but people like gathering here to watch sporting events and that's a significant part of our business," Ballard says. "Going forward we're going to start separating the bar a little more from the restaurant, which will give us the ability to promote events and not interrupt the family patrons who love our product."

    Currently, liquor sales make up 8 percent to 10 percent of total sales and the changes being made stand to increase that significantly. One of the company's largest existing units, a 4,000-sq.-ft. restaurant in Woodstock, Ga., was the first to test separating bar and dining room with a wall. Alcohol sales there now comprise 25 percent to 30 percent of sales.

    Other changes planned for the bar in new prototype units include expanding the selection of draft beers from the current 10 or 12 to 35 to 40. A keg cooler will be built in right behind the bar to store the kegs and ensure the beers are served at 28 degrees F — the coldest beer in town, according to Ballard. "We don't want to diminish the hard work we've put into our own core bar drinks, but we feel our concept is right for enhancing the beer element and making a wide selection of quality, unique beers a calling card. We think it will really resonate with our five-star customers."


    Facts of Note

    • Founded: December 2001, Covington, La.
    • Menu signatures: Wings, tenders, 20 proprietary sauces and dressings, New Orleans specialties, burgers, wraps, gourmet salads
    • Current units: 52 in 21 states, 3 company-owned
    • Prototypes: Full-service, café, QSR
    • Largest franchisee: Sodexo
    • Key expansion markets: Southern Louisiana, plus area developers are in place in Georgia, Maryland/DC, Pennsylvania, New Jersey
    • Average covers per day: Full-service, 350; QSR, 500
    • Average checks (no alcohol): Full-service, $13; QSR $7.50
    • Services: Dine-in, takeout/pick-up, online ordering, catering, delivery, drive-through in some units
    • Kitchen space: 15 percent to 25 percent of total unit square footage
    • Equipment Investment Per Unit: $75,000 - $205,000
    • Total Unit Investment: Ranges from $224,000 to $752,500 (QSR to Full Service)


    Players

    • Founder/CEO: Paul Ballard
    • President: Steven Ballard
    • Principal: Scott Ballard
    • Chief Operations Officer: Corrado Giacona
    • Chief Financial Officer: Jeffrey Giavotella
    • Vice President, Real Estate and Construction: Chris Pierson
    • Vice President of Operations: Patrick Shaheen
    • Director of Franchise Development: Ryan Stansbury
    • Director of Marketing: Reid Nolte
    • Consulting Chefs: George Rhode IV, Paul Prudhomme
    • Design and Equipment Consultants: C&T Design and Equipment Co. Inc., Indianapolis; Gawain Guy, owner, Kevin Brezette, project manager
    • Architects: Zito-Russell, Mobile, Ala.
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