Sally Smith's (chicken) wings are soaring

By The Associated Press

Sally Smith became CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. after the other guy didn’t show up.

It was 1996 and Smith was the top finance officer for the chicken wings chain, which was still relatively small, with about 70 restaurants.

The founders, friends Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery, had opened the first Buffalo Wild Wings 14 years earlier, after moving to Columbus, Ohio, from Buffalo, N.Y. Unable to find Buffalo-style chicken wings in their new town, they’d opened Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck, cooking sauces in their apartment kitchen and playing MTV in the restaurant to attract Ohio State college students.

But the pair knew they needed help taking the business from a labor of love to a professionally managed corporation, especially because Disbrow, by then CEO, was about to leave to run the U.S. Figure Skating Association. They chose the operations vice president of another restaurant as their new chief exec. But he didn’t show up on his scheduled first day.

The board members huddled, then told Smith a few days later that they wanted her to be CEO. She doesn’t really remember agreeing to take the job; it was just assumed that she would.

She got the books in order, shook up the supply chain and added marketing, human resources and finance departments. She set out to diversify the customer base, and she dropped “Weck” from the end of the name (a weck is a caraway roll popular in Buffalo). In 2003, she took the company public.

The chain has since grown to about 750 restaurants, including one in Ontario that opened in May, marking Buffalo Wild Wings’ first international expansion. Now, Smith is eyeing London. Unlike many competitors, the Minneapolis-based chain has weathered the recession well. Its revenue rose 14 percent last year, when U.S. revenue fell at Applebee’s, Chili’s and Ruby Tuesday, according to Technomic, a restaurant industry research firm.

Smith, 53, talked to The Associated Press about when to get the biggest chicken wings, what she looks for in job applicants and what’s worrying the restaurant industry.

Q. What was Buffalo Wild Wings like when you first got there?

A. We had a commissary and everything came through it. They were buying chicken wings, bringing them to the commissary and sending them back out to the franchisees. We had about 14 trucks, and it was not efficient. If we were going to open a restaurant in Texas, you ended up having a truck that had to go from Columbus to Texas.

Q. How did you reshape the brand?

A. The restaurants were really college bars. And there’s nothing wrong with college bars, but you probably weren’t going to raise money. We started delivering the food to the (tables). We did higher ceilings, windows, we expanded the menu. We updated the logo — it was a Buffalo nickel on a plain cream background.

Q. Do you ever hear people complain their wings are getting smaller?

A. In the summer, wings tend to be smaller because chickens don’t eat as much. In the winter, they’re eating more. You also have Thanksgiving and Christmas, times when the plants are typically closed. So chickens the next week have much bigger wings.

Q. You’re chairwoman of the National Restaurant Association. What are restaurants worried about right now?

A. What’s going to happen with the health care bill (which requires most businesses to offer health insurance to any employee who works an average of at least 30 hours a week)…. The industry employs a lot of part-time people who want to be part-time. Some people work 20 hours one week, 30 hours the next. We just need some definition around what the rules are going to be.

Q. Your company describes itself as fun and high-energy. How do you keep that culture as you grow?

A. It’s a fun place to work. We definitely provide career mobility. We spend a lot of time trying to communicate with our managers — our goal is helping that server do the best job they can. We have something called the spirit squad, and they’ve been making chili with a different sauce each month. … You have to find out what’s most important to each employee. I was shadowing one server and she worked every day from 9 to 2. She had children who got out from school so it was perfect, and she really got to know her lunch guests.

Q. What do you look for in job applicants?

A. If they’re passionate about something: Is it a sport, is it reading?

Early on, when I joined Buffalo Wild Wings, I borrowed an office. It was the first week or two, and I noticed the garbage was piling up, and I went to my friend and said, “I don’t think the cleaning service is coming in here,” and he said, “We take it out ourselves.” So I use that as an analogy for what I look for in people. Are they willing to take the garbage out? Can they chip in?

Q. What has most surprised you about your customers?

A. The absolute fanaticism about Buffalo Wild Wings. We actually had a wedding at one of our restaurants. We were relocating and they had gotten engaged at a Buffalo Wild Wings, and they quickly planned their wedding to be there before it closed. I have photos of engagement rings on a wing.