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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008

In the Zone

Wings on the fly

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In an era rife with corporate fast-food franchises, a zeitgeist within the culinary world has emerged that encourages and favors all things specialty and artisanal. Meaning, the smaller the batch, the better the food. In this spirit, there is a tendency among foodies to dismiss cuisine that is made in the kitchen of a fast-food restaurant as being inherently inferior in concept and quality. It’s worthwhile to consider, however, that many of these successful chains began as someone’s labor of love, a single restaurant that became so popular it could sustain multiple locations. Wing Zone, a national takeout and delivery chain best known for offering 25 flavors of Buffalo chicken wings, is such a restaurant.

Before Entrepreneur Magazine rated it a Top 20 New Franchise in 2007, before Inc. Magazine recognized it as one of the 500 fastest-growing, privately held franchise businesses in America, before Bond’s Franchise Guide listed it as one of its Top 100 franchise opportunities, Wing Zone was a small-time delivery business developed in 1991 by two Pi Kappa Phi fraternity brothers at the University of Florida in Gainesville. With $500 invested in food, fliers and a phone line, Matt Friedman and Adam Scott started cooking and delivering chicken wings from their frat house.

When Friedman and Scott were repeatedly denied bank loans to expand their business, they approached their parents for help. They were able to open their first restaurant in Gainesville in 1993 with $3,000 in profits from their fraternity-based business and $5,000 loans from each set of parents. Wing Zone opened a second location in Gainesville in 1995, and over the next five years opened stores in thriving college towns like Athens, Ga., Tallahassee, Fla., Columbia, S.C., Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Austin, Texas. The partners took turns moving to each location and establishing the new stores, doing all the flooring, plumbing and electrical work themselves. In 1999, Friedman and Scott moved to Atlanta and began their franchise program.

The Buffalo wing, what is now perhaps the most popular finger food in America, has its origins in Buffalo, N.Y., a city that, like Milwaukee, has both industrial roots and real estate on one of the country’s Great Lakes. At the city’s annual National Buffalo Wing Festival (NBWF), held over Labor Day Weekend, Wing Zone was named “Festival Favorite” for a second time, selling more than 30,000 of its wings at the two-day event. The designation of “Festival Favorite” means that the approximately 80,000 attendees purchased more wings from Wing Zone than any other vendor at the festival. Wing Zone’s medium Buffalo sauce was also the official sauce for the U.S. Competitive Wing Eating Championships held at the NBWF, a role it has played before. The fast-food chain also took home first place in the festival’s “Creative Sweet Sauce” category with its sweet and savory honey garlic Parmesan sauce.

Wing Zone’s extensive menu includes 25 unique flavors of fresh, cooked-toorder chicken wings, including favorites like Asian sesame, lemon pepper garlic, spicy BBQ, honey teriyaki, Cajun, cool ranch, Thai chili and, of course, nuclear. In addition, Wing Zone offers a balanced menu of salads, grilled sandwiches, burgers and appetizers like onion rings, mozzarella sticks and fried mushrooms.

Milwaukee native James Jordon opens the state’s second Wing Zone on Dec. 15 on the corner of Van Buren and North Water Street in Milwaukee’s East Side (1683 N. Van Buren St.). He chose to open his Wing Zone franchise here because of its proximity to UW-Milwaukee, Marquette University, Milwaukee School of Engineering and Milwaukee Area Technical College, plus all of the Downtown office buildings. Jordan has been renovating the building formerly occupied by Giovanni’s since January.

“I have been under construction for so long,” Jordan says with a laugh. “I can’t wait to cross the finish line so I can get to the starting line.”

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