Population. U.S. proximity. Financing. Footprint. The right partners. Those were just a few of the factors that mid-sized quick serve Wing Zone considered in choosing the first international market to represent its expanding brand.
The founders believed they had just one shot to make their international debut and they wanted to get it right. For years, prospects had approached the fast-growing domestic chain, offering to bring its largely college-oriented take-out concept abroad. But Wing Zone held out, seeking to maximize opportunities at home in a U.S. market that appeared plenty big enough to handle increasing demand for buffalo-style chicken wings.
Come the recession the picture began to look different, recalled executives with the Atlanta-based chain of 100 restaurants, which was founded on the campus of the University of Florida in 1991. So in early 2009—with domestic growth expectations slowed to about a dozen stores—they undertook serious plans to expand the concept outside U.S. borders.
“It became more of a priority as things domestically slowed down,” says Matt Friedman, founder and CEO, looking back on the process in early September. “We could then focus attention on the international plan.”
Mexico, Central America, Latin America, and the Caribbean, with their penchant for chicken, the world’s most popular protein, seemed logical choices. These markets were close enough to facilitate the affordable export of Wing Zone’s products and allowed for hands-on supervision by the operations team, just an easy hop from Miami International Airport.
Industry heavyweights such as KFC and Burger King had already demonstrated success in the region. In addition, there seemed to be room for a niche player devoted primarily to made-to-order chicken wings, with signature sauces that would cater to the region’s appetite for spicy flavors.
“Delivery concepts are really thriving in these markets,” Friedman says. “The buffalo wing as a core menu concept really hasn’t penetrated yet.”
Adds co-founder and CFO Adam Scott in the same September interview: “Central and South America—they’re not having the same economic struggles as the rest of the world is. That was definitely a factor in where we would start our initial push.”
While Friedman and Scott oversaw pieces of the broader strategy, including financing and legal, work on the ground was spearheaded by two newcomers: chief operating officer Casey McEwen, a former Wing Zone consultant with executive experience at chicken concepts including Mrs. Winner’s Chicken & Biscuits and Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken; and vice president of international development Hair Parra, a Venezuelan-born franchising executive with longstanding expertise in Spanish-speaking markets.