How Wingstop readied itself for a pandemic

The fast-casual wing brand put the pieces in place for digital transformation just before crisis landed at its doorstep.
Photo courtesy of Wingstop

Editor’s note: This story is based on a webinar for the Restaurant Recovery Summit brought to you by Restaurant Business parent company Winsight. You can register for the summit and check out all of the events at restaurantrecoverysummit.com.

No one really prepares for something like the coronavirus pandemic.

Wingstop CEO Charlie Morrison knows that, of course. But, whether it was by luck or good planning, the fast-casual wing chain put the pieces in place in the months and years leading up to the global crisis to position itself well when catastrophe struck.

The Dallas-based chain made a large investment in its tech stack a couple of years ago, to add efficiency to the digital ordering process that would allow digital orders to “drop straight into our kitchen, much like you would expect to see in a pizza delivery concept,” Morrison said. By January, the brand’s partnership with DoorDash was formalized and plans were in place to start a nationwide promotional campaign around delivery.

“We had a lot of pieces and parts in place,” Morrison said in a discussion broadcast as part of the Restaurant Recovery Summit, an event hosted by Restaurant Business parent company, Winsight.

Pre-pandemic, about 40% of Wingstop’s sales came in through digital channels. Now, that number stands at more than 60%, he said.

“Our goal is to digitize every transaction,” Morrison said. “We expect this number to continue to grow.”

Few restaurant brands have been able to match Wingstop’s success amid the pandemic. The chain’s most recent same-store sales climbed 25.4% and systemwide sales grew 32.8%, to nearly $510 million.

Another marker of Wingstop’s dominance? Restaurant operators around the country are adding virtual wing concepts to their kitchens in an attempt to cash in.

For its part, Wingstop plans to have 10 ghost kitchens in the U.S. by the end of the year, Morrison said.

“Some things become trendy but you’re not quite sure how they’re going to work,” he said. “Ghost kitchens is one of them. Delivery was one of those trendy things everybody has been enamored with. We want to understand how it is going to work. What is the opportunity for ghost kitchens? How does it complement our existing asset strategy? … We’re making sure we don’t jump on the trend but really spend time navigating it carefully.”

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