Executive Q&A: Matt Friedman of Wing Zone
The Founder and CEO of Wing Zone gives the lowdown on the longtime wing brand.
What inspired you to create Wing Zone back in 1991?
I think it goes back to my childhood. Growing up, I was a competitive person in every aspect, whether it was sports, education or trying to date the best-looking girl. When I reached the age of figuring out what I wanted to do with my career, I viewed business as an extension of that.
I didn't necessarily know what business I wanted to be in. I had no restaurant experience. But I was smart enough to understand what the demand was in the market, and I wanted to fill a void with something I thought could really work.
I think that starting out as a restaurant entrepreneur is as challenging as it gets, especially when you’re working independently. When we expanded to six company-owned stores, that was another learning experience—and a humbling one.
Franchising is an amazing business model, but it can be challenging. Everyone thinks they want to be a franchisor, but you have to be more than just an entrepreneur. You have to be a leader. You have to be a great communicator. You have to be a coach. You have to have thick skin. I've been in this business for 25 years, but each year my knowledge base continues to grow.
What have been some of Wing Zone's biggest milestones over the years?
Our first big milestone was opening our first restaurant. Co-founder Adam Scott and I tested our wing-delivery concept in our University of Florida fraternity house kitchen, and just a couple of years later, in 1993, we had the opportunity to open our first storefront right there in Gainesville, Florida.
We opened our first franchise location, which was store number seven, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1999. And in 2009, we opened our first international location in Panama City, Panama.
What about Wing Zone makes it unique within its industry?
Our biggest differentiator is our focus on delivery. Wing Zone has been in the delivery business for 25 years. Everyone says they are in it now, but we really lived it.
We’re also founder-driven and founder-owned. That’s a relevant distinction that doesn’t exist in many places today.
We also stand out through the variety of our different flavors. We currently have 17 flavors, including 14 traditional flavors and three flavor rubs. Our approach to the research, development and innovation of flavors is crucial for us.
What plans does Wing Zone have in the coming years?
We are in major growth mode. We’re investing heavily in our people and our restaurants and bringing new franchisees into the system. It’s a critical time for us to get to a mass scale in the next several years. I think that mentally, we’re truly ready for it. It’s about targeted growth, staying true to the core model, focus and discipline. We are currently focusing on targeted growth in nine states around the Southeastern U.S.
Our number one goal in attracting franchisees to Wing Zone is to get them to our headquarters in Atlanta to see and hear what we have to offer and to understand our passion. Our success rate in signing franchisees when they come to Atlanta is probably one of the best in the industry. We need to continue to let people know that Wing Zone is still very relevant and in a position for incredible growth.
Why is Wing Zone a good investment?
Wing Zone is a great investment because we offer exclusivity and the ability to develop a market. That’s an attractive opportunity for a lot of franchisees.
The overall investment for Wing Zone is one of the lowest in the franchise industry. The average owner can open for around $250,000, and our AUVs are in the $750,000 to $760,000 range. We’re getting franchisees a good sales-to-investment ratio.
Ultimately, we’re in a somewhat non-competitive space. It’s not a sandwich or a make-your-own burrito or pizza concept. When we go into a market, it’s new and innovative, and something our future customers are really excited about.
How does Wing Zone support franchisees?
At the end of the day, it’s about food, marketing and technology.
When it comes to food buying, one of the key things that an independent operator doesn’t have is the ability of a franchise to buy in large volumes. How do you know whether to buy 10 or 500 cases of wings per week? That’s just one question Wing Zone helps owners answer.
From a marketing perspective—which is a huge factor people don’t talk a lot about—we’re constantly looking at menu innovation, creative promotions and new flavors. We just rolled out text marketing for all of our restaurants. I believe it’s up to the franchisor to drive new customers to a franchisee’s restaurant.
When it comes to e-learning, onboarding and labor, we’re continuing to invest in better technology, as well as a simpler way to attract candidates, hire and train them. This is a huge key to success for our franchisees, and we are constantly innovating in the technology space.
What does an ideal franchisee look like?
The ideal Wing Zone franchisee is someone with an outgoing personality. They are community-based. We like the idea of our franchisees living in the market where they own their location. It’s an undervalued asset and one that’s kind of a big deal to us.
What does success look like for you?
That’s a pretty simple one. Success is developing select markets in a set geographic area with the right franchisees.