Chicken wings are the menu item of the moment. And Buffalo Wild Wings, which built its following on wings, beer and sports, is aiming to seize the moment.
Today, BWW introduced four new sauces for its signature chicken wings—Orange Chicken, Lemon Pepper, Carolina Reaper and Pizza—along with a totally new item, crispy Cauliflower Wings, and three revamped salads.
"We should own the conversation when it comes to wing sauce flavors and we intend to do that,” says Jamie Carawan, VP of brand menu and culinary for BWW.
The four sauces are the first from among 50 in the innovation pipeline, developed over the last eight months by Carawan and his team of 11 culinarians. They hit several different flavor profiles.
Carolina Reaper is replacing BWW’s Blazin’ sauce, which lost some of its momentum, says Carawan. Instead, he is creating a “blazin’ platform,” initiated by this sauce. It features the Carolina Reaper pepper, the hottest around, combined with hot red pepper sauce, guajillo pepper puree and roasted garlic. “This is the sauce for our customers who like to challenge their dining companions,” Carawan says.
Orange Chicken is a blend of sweet citrus and tangy orange zest with soy and mild chili peppers, while Lemon Pepper has a buttery lemon flavor contrasted by black pepper. Rounding out the sauce quartet is Pizza, “We took our Garlic Parmesan sauce and dusted it with tomato and basil powder,” says Carawan. It’s debuting as a limited-time offer, Pizza Wings.
The plant-based Cauliflower Wings are made with breaded cauliflower tossed with BWW’s Asian Zing sauce, Fresno chilies, sesame seeds and green onions. “They’re crunchy with a good bite, and consumers who tried the wings gave them very high marks,” says Carawan. They appear on both the appetizer and wing menus.
Although salads have not been a big draw at BWW, Carawan felt the five on the menu looked “old-fashioned; circa-1995 casual-dining,” he says. So he gave the category a makeover, reducing the choices to three and updating some classics. The new lineup includes a Buffalo Wedge Salad with chicken tenders, blue cheese, bacon and Buffalo sauce and a Chopped Cobb Salad.
“We did a lot of ideation three months before COVID hit, and were able to do some online consumer testing during the shutdown,” says Carawan. “When restaurants started reopening [in May], we tested the items with customers.”
Chicken wings were a big seller during the pandemic—they travel well for takeout and delivery, are value priced and can serve as a family meal, snack or add-on. Like other wing concepts, BWW focused on off-premise when consumers were quarantining at home, but several non-wing players also jumped on the trend. In the casual-dining space, both Applebee’s and Chili’s heated up the competition with virtual concepts—Neighborhood Wings and It’s Just Wings respectively. And in August, Domino’s introduced its new upgraded chicken wings.
And then there’s Wingstop, the frontrunner. The Dallas-based chain reported a 32% bump in same-store sales in Q2 and added 23 new locations during the quarter.
But BWW is betting on innovation as a menu differentiator. The casual-dining chain continues to accelerate R&D, with a strong emphasis on its sauce flavor platform. “We want to own the category,” says Carawan.