Matt Ensero, CEO and founder of Wing It On, didn’t know how his five-unit chicken wing chain would fare during a pandemic. It was uncharted waters for every restaurateur, but somehow, Ensero was able to increase sales during COVID-19.
With a delivery system already in place and an average of 85% of business pre-coronavirus coming from delivery, this small chain was able to turn their slow season into a business boom.
What’s ahead for the brand during their busiest season – college football – and how did Ensero and franchisees increase sales? We caught up with Ensero to hear his story of triumph during times of hardship. Read his story below.
“In all honesty, business has been really strong for Wing it On during the pandemic. The first month after the quarantine began, we saw systemwide sales increase 23% and that grew to 40% in the second month and it’s continuing to grow even today.
Over the next four months, we’d love to see how that sustained growth can carry on into the fall because the fall is typically our strongest season. We’re a wings place so football season is our bread and butter.
It’s strange because right now is typically our slow season. It’s usually hotdog, hamburger, baseball season but we’ve been seeing record growth and record sales numbers across all of our units based on the current marketing conditions.
We have a partnership with Uber Eats and DoorDash and that’s been really strong, but we also implemented curbside pickup once the pandemic began. Our stores are a really small footprint, usually 1,000- to 1,500-square-feet, so it was kind of hard to maintain the social distancing practices in the stores, so customers really appreciated the curbside pickup option as well to minimize interaction in the stores.
We’ve always been positioned really well [for delivery] but nobody knows they’re set up well to function in a pandemic until a pandemic really happens. Because the restaurants are a small footprint, we’ve always been a takeout- and delivery-centric model as it’s about 85% of store revenue on average.
We haven’t had to lay off anybody. Our strategy from the beginning was ‘if we take care of the employees then we’re organically taking care of the customers’, so we did everything possible at the beginning to make the employee feel safe. Inorganically, that translated into things for the customers.
We started things like temperature checks in the very early weeks, things that are now mandated such as providing all our employees with masks, setting up sanitizer stations, installing sneeze guards at the main counter, temperature checks before work and we haven’t had a single employee contract COVID-19. We also gave all of our employees at our corporate locations $2 an hour as hazard pay.
[The hazard pay] is open ended, as long as the employees are working in an at-risk environment, we’re going to keep that going. We’re doing well thankfully through the pandemic and we want to make sure we take care of our employees and they feel safe enough to come to work.
Our store in New Britain, Connecticut is on Central Connecticut State University’s campus and the corporate store we’re currently building is right across form NC State here in Raleigh, North Carolina so [whether or not college sports and football will come back] those are big questions right now for us. If the colleges don’t come back and if football doesn’t come back, we’re really just going to have to lean on the strength of our model, which is delivery-centric, and continue to send the message to customers that we’re a safe place to get a good, quick meal.
Thankfully we’ve had some good landlords that have helped out our college location plus, the fact that we’ve been set up pretty well in the pandemic. [The stores near college campus’] may have lost the business from the college life but they’ve seen an increase in local business.
[Franchisees] are stressed out on in their personal lives because of the pandemic so the fact that the business is doing well and growing it’s just one less stress for them in their lives and they’re happy with how things are going on the business front.”
Wing it On is based in New Britain, Conn., and currently has four franchised locations, one corporate-owned location and six units in development.
This is part of our Stories from the Front Lines series.