Pizza competitors aren't just 'winging' it

 
July 10, 2006

Last week's story on Wingstop's "Stick to Pizza" (read Feathers may fly over wings) ad generated a lot of conversation around our office in Louisville, as well as in chats I had with pizza operators. In brief, Wingstop's ad essentially tells pizza operators to stick with pizza and leave wings to the experts.

Though not rude, the ad is the kind of in-your-face marketing that gets attention these days, and admittedly, when done as well as this was, I like such advertising. The ad also is a bit humorous, albeit a little goofy. For example, in the commercial, a pizza maker tosses a skin of dough in the air and a cook standing next to him tosses up a mound of wings. When the flightless appendages fall to the counter, he says to the pizza maker, "Maybe we should stick to pizza."

Still, the ad's message is abundantly clear: We're the experts and pizza guys aren't. And if you want the best wings around, call us, not them.

Is the claim a fair one? Not totally. Pizza companies' sales of wings have given that item its nationwide exposure. Sure, pubs and casual dining spots have offered them as a side item for years, but who else has pushed them onto the public palate so vigorously as pizza companies? In the United States, pizza and wings go together about as well as cake and ice cream.

But that doesn't necessarily make wings sold by pizza companies the best available. I'll be frank: I like mine deep fried, and the best I've ever had came from La Nova Pizza in Buffalo, N.Y. (Ironically, La Nova is most famous for La Nova Wings, the company started by the grandson and granddaughter of La Nova Pizza's founder. [Read Who's Who: Joey Todaro] It sells fully cooked wings created to be baked in pizzerias without fryers, and its sales outpace La Nova Pizza's by a factor of five.) Baked can be very good, but they're not my personal favorite. Yet these are what you get in the vast majority of pizzerias in America, and customers happily buy billions of them annually.

Those thoughts spawned this question: Is Wingstop — or any other wings-only company — a competitor pizza operators should fear?

Kamron Karington, a pizzeria marketing expert cited in the story, said pizza guys shouldn't worry much because if people crave pizza, that's what they'll get. If they crave wings, that's what they'll get. The good news for pizza operators, he added, is customers can get both in one stop. And even if they want pizza and Wingstop-type wings, it's unlikely they'll go to both places.

I'd agree from the perspective that I won't put forth so much effort. Sure, I could have pizza delivered and go pick up the wings, but even that sounds like too much hassle. Convenience — well, OK, I'll admit it, sheer bone laziness — is the beauty of delivery anyway, so why ruin it by running out?

Wings to your door

While working on another story for one of our company's other publications, I came across Wing Zone, an 85-unit wings-centered, quick-service player that delivers. That's right, Wing Zone delivers fried wings, along with fried shrimp, grilled hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, salads and drinks.

Matt Friedman and Adam Scott founded the company in 1991 and based

Famed futurist Faith Popcorn's prediction 15 years ago in the Popcorn Report has come true. She said people will begin "cocooning," retreating to their homes for family time, peace, quiet and sustenance. She didn't predict how they'd get that sustenance, but judging by the changes afoot in the restaurant industry, it's increasingly coming to American homes via restaurants.

much of it on the Domino's Pizza model of menu simplicity, affordable prices and delivery. Stan Friedman, a Wing Zone partner and executive vice president, said the chain's annual store sales average is $505,000 (close to the U.S. pizza unit average of $550,000), but it'll have its first million-dollar store this year. Check average is $14.50, close to the same posted at many pizza chains.

Wing Zone also appeals to a core customer segment coveted in pizza: young males, who are more focused on convenience and price than healthful food, guys who want a lot of food for a little money.

Pizza has enjoyed near-exclusive domination of the restaurant food delivery market for decades, but I believe Wing Zone's penetration is a sign of things to come for not only the wings segment, but the Chinese segment.

Why those two? Because both types of food are just as "deliverable" as pizza (meaning both stay hot en route and travel doesn't diminish product integrity significantly), and they're equally affordable.

Though currently dominated by independents, I predict delivery in the Chinese segment will be driven by chains with the money and know-how to do it. (Notice, I don't write "Asian," because other Asian cuisines aren't as heavily sauce and rice based, which are essential thermal components in delivery.)

The restaurant industry as a whole continues to wake up to the fact that people like eating at home, and those concepts that allow them to do so will grab a larger share of business. Want proof? Look at the growth of curbside dining in the casual segment (read Curbside enthusiasm), as well as the steady increase in online ordering (read Web ordering: From computer to makeline), something Wing Zone offers as well. Who in pizza can ignore the relentless growth of Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza? And surely you've heard that Subway is conducting a 60-store delivery test in Florida.

Famed futurist Faith Popcorn's prediction 15 years ago in the Popcorn Report has come true. She said people will begin "cocooning," retreating to their homes for family time, peace, quiet and sustenance. She didn't predict how they'd get that sustenance, but judging by the changes afoot in the restaurant industry, it's increasingly coming to American homes via restaurants.

So be on your guard, pizza operators. More than a few companies want to follow in your footsteps to the door.


Topics: Commentary , Delivery , Operations Management


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