Savannah Wing Zone Franchise A Model For Rest Of Chain

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The scouting trip took Jeremy and Deborah Serls all over Southside Savannah, and every long block revealed another attractive piece of ground on which to build the area's first Wing Zone franchise.

The route included a pass by the Eisenhower Square shopping center. And there, tucked between McDonald's and a billiards hall, sat a small building with a double drive-thru home to a coffee shop.

"That looks like a good spot," Jeremy told his wife. "Too bad it's taken." For first-time franchisees tasked with opening Wing Zone's first built-from-the-ground-up location, as well as the chain's second store with a drive-thru, the coffee shop helped the Serlses visualize what their store could look like.

The java business failed not long after, opening the outparcel to new tenants. The Serlses claimed it, knocked down the old building and constructed a similar structure, albeit with just a single drive-thru lane.

Today, nine months after opening, the store is one of the best performing in the 100-plus location Wing Zone chain. Sales are 40 percent above the company average.

The model is the future for the Atlanta-based corporation.

"For years, we had customers saying, "˜We love the products, but we want it faster,"™" Wing Zone CEO and co-founder Matt Friedman said. "We"™re in a convenience world and adding a drive-thru addresses that demand. And free-standing locations give us more exposure." Success from the start The Wing Zone back-story is one worth clucking about.

Friedman and a fraternity brother, Adam Scott, started the business in 1991 out of a University of Florida frat house kitchen. Despite the presence of 40,000 nocturnal and hungry co-eds, Gainesville's late-night food delivery options were limited to pizza at the time.

Friedman and Scott's venture was a success from the start "" they sold out of chicken their first two nights in business. The pair opened a storefront in Gainesville two years later. By 2000, they had grown to seven stores and shifted their focus to franchising.

One of the first franchise locations opened in a strip mall in West Palm Beach, Fla. And one of that store's best customers was Jeremy Serls. He worked in a business a few doors down and often took his meals at the Wing Zone.

He also had family in Savannah, and on a visit one week, his wing craving kick in.

"The only delivery here was pizza and Chinese," Serls said. "I knew a Wing Zone would go crazy here." Serls filed the idea away in his mind. He and Deborah moved from Florida to Phoenix for a few years, where he worked as an account representative for Hershey's chocolate company and she toiled in a medical office. They saved their money and three years ago reached out to Wing Zone about opening a franchise in Savannah.

They successfully completed the application process, signed the franchise agreement and built the store, opening Oct. 17, 2011. The public response was similar to what Friedman and Scott encountered 20 years earlier "" people lined up out the door and cars piled up in the drive-thru.

"That's when the real work began," Serls said.

Perfecting the process To prepare a chicken wing, from dropping the raw meat into the fryer to placing the cooked and sauced treat into a box, takes eight-and-a-half minutes.

The drive-thru service time goal is 90 seconds.

Wing Zone corporate spent almost a year figuring out how to produce fresh wings fast. The company debuted drive-thru service last April in a converted Checker's in Cumming. By the time the Serlses opened the Savannah store six months later, the Wing Zone management had a grasp on the process.

"You study your traffic trends and at busy times it's a constant cooking process where you cook 30 at a time and rotate them into a hot well," Friedman said. "You throw some food away, but any drive-thru environment is going to have waste. You make it up in greater sales." The Serleses have perfected the process. Jeremy Serls attributes much of the store's success to its proximity to Savannah State, Armstrong and especially Hunter Army Airfield, but the drive-thru business is "robust." Their store's success has them planning to add multiple locations locally in the next "three to five years." "We have a lot of new customers that discover us every day," Jeremy Serls said. "It's pretty cool to see them become regulars."

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