The untold truth of Buffalo Wild Wings

It was a fluke discovery in 1964, but it led to a nationwide phenomenon. The widely accepted story is that it was Teressa Bellissimo of Buffalo's Anchor Bar who first came up with the idea of deep-frying wings and covering them with sauce, but in the years since, almost every kind of sauce imaginable has been slathered on chicken wings. There's only one true Buffalo wing, though — just ask anyone who hails from The Nickel City.

Once you have the real thing, there's no going back. There's something undeniably delicious about real, authentic Buffalo wings, and that's the craving Buffalo Wild Wings was built on. The brainchild of childhood friends Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery, the casual sports bar was created with the goal of bringing authentic Buffalo wings to the rest of the country. BW3 spread (Did you catch that other W? We'll talk about that later.), and they had a very interesting journey. Here are some things you might not know about this massively popular chain.

It started in Ohio

It seems like it might be a given that this chain started in Buffalo, but it didn't — in fact, BW-3's actual connections to Buffalo are somewhat tenuous.

The first location was opened in Columbus, Ohio, not far from The Ohio State University. The idea was born in 1981 and doors opened in 1982, and at the helm was Kentucky native Jim Disbrow. Disbrow had moved to Cincinnati when he was 11, and he was adopted by figure skaters David and Rita Lowery. Their son, Scott, would later become the other half of BW-3's founding duo.

Disbrow moved to Buffalo in 1974, and was back in Ohio a few years later. He was lamenting the fact he couldn't find a good chicken wing anywhere, so he and Lowery decided to open their own chicken wing joint in the spirit of the wings Disbrow had discovered in Buffalo. Other locations opened slowly, and they didn't hit the point of franchising until 1991.

What's the other W in BW3?

Originally, that third W was supposed to represent another incredible, super-regional piece of Buffalo's unique food landscape: weck. It was first called Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck, and it's not entirely surprising that last one was dropped — if you're not from Buffalo, you probably haven't got the foggiest idea what weck is.

Weck is short for kummelweck (or, alternatively, kimmelweck). No one's really sure where the super-regional delicacy started, but The Chicago Tribune found it has roots in the late 1800s and the German immigrants that settled in the Western New York area. The caraway-and-salt-topped rolls are chewy inside and hard on the outside, and since they hold up to liquid, they're perfect for soaking in aus ju and still holding beef — hence, beef on weck.

So, why did BW-3 drop the weck? Bizarrely, attempts to make a true, Buffalo-style weck roll outside of Western New York have failed, and they're not easy to export. They get rock-hard overnight, so it's probably best to just stick to the wings.

Big chickens are giving them big problems

In 2013, BW3 menus got a major overhaul, and it all had to do with how they did business. At the time, customers would get an order containing certain number of wings. The chain was buying their chickens by weight, though, and as chicken wings were getting larger and larger, they were paying more to their suppliers. That meant the customer was getting more chicken, each portion was costing the chain more, and without raising prices, BW3's profits were taking a major hit.

It's a tricky way to do business that doesn't really have much consistency, and it also means that when chicken prices are high, that cripples profits. So, BW3 decided to start selling wings by weight, rather than by number. Business Insider says the goal was to serve an amount similar to what customers were getting before wing sizes were getting noticeably bigger, and also said that handed BW3 another problem — how to explain to customers they were getting the same amount, whether they had five or six wings on their plate. Fortunately for them, people love giant chicken wings.

What happened to that Tuesday deal?

Half-Price Wings Tuesday at BW3 was the highlight of the week for coworkers and drinking buddies everywhere, but that came to an abrupt end in 2017. It was replaced with a buy-one, get-one offer on boneless wings, and that makes you wonder why they would have gotten rid of such a massively popular deal in favor of a new one that, at a glance, is essentially the same thing.

According to Business Insider, it all had to do with margins. Half-Price Wings got a ton of people in the door, but still-rising costs of chicken wings meant they weren't making as much as they should have been off all that foot traffic. Enter, the boneless wing. These pseudo-wings might be increasing in popularity, but they weren't hit by the same skyrocketing prices that traditional wings were — making the boneless wing deal much more profitable to BW3's bottom line.

Did it work? Absolutely. Business Insider says BW3 profits — and stocks — soared after they made the switch, and that's a huge deal that allowed BW3 to stay profitable and keep the doors open.

Traditional wings aren't their biggest seller

Chicken wings are a big deal in the States, and in case you doubt, consider this: the National Chicken Council says Americans ate an estimated 1.35 billion wings… just during 2018's Super Bowl. For some perspective, they also say if you were to take all 32 NFL stadiums and fill the seats with that many wings, every chair would have to hold 625 wings. That number was up a shocking 20 million wings from just the year before, so you'd think chicken wings would be BW3's biggest seller. They're not.

As of 2016, boneless wings stepped up to take over the majority of chicken wing sales at BW3. They're the fastest-growing section of the market, and Business Insider says that while 2015's nationwide numbers suggest love for boneless or traditional wings was split pretty evenly (with traditional wings slightly in the lead), it was just a year later BW3 was reporting they were selling more boneless wings. Efficiency, or sacrilege?

What are those boneless wings, anyway?

Sure, you might not think twice about calling them boneless wings, but what are they really? They're actually not wings at all, and according to The New Food Economy, they're made by cutting a chicken breast in five pieces, then tossing it in a fryer. That's it.

They also say they came about in a weird way. Chicken wings were getting more and more popular, thanks to places like BW3, and even if chickens were grown bigger and better, they still only had a limited number of wings. (That's in spite of what you might have heard about KFC breeding mutant chickens.) Trying to keep up with the demand for wings meant there was an oversupply of other cuts of meat — which were then made into "boneless wings" to satisfy supply and still give customers what they wanted. Sort of.

And, in case you're wondering, there's no machine that's capable of removing the bone from a real chicken wing.

There's a new BDubs in town

There's no denying that one day, millennials are going to be running the world. Pieces of that world are slowly adjusting to stay more relevant to their changing tastes, and according to Business Insider, BW3 is doing just that by opening B-Dubs Express.

They first opened in 2017 in Edina, Minnesota, and it's a template the chain is looking at exploring to target a group that traditionally shuns casual dining. Rather than the traditional sports bar atmosphere you see in most locations, these new express stores are ultra-focused on take-out, even though they'll still have a relatively small amount of seating.

CEO Sally Smith explained the new direction like this: "Millennial consumers are more attracted than their elders to cooking at home, ordering delivery from restaurants, and eating quickly, in fast-casual or quick-serve restaurants." So, that's what they're trying, and you might see these popping up across their footprint.

They take beer seriously

It's no secret that BW3 takes their beer almost as seriously as they take their chicken wings, and there's a good reason for that — what goes better with wings, after all? According to The Motley Fool, about 20 percent of BW3's profits come from the sale of beer, and even more impressive? Thanks to their 1,200-odd locations, they're the largest pourer of draft beer in the country.

Part of that success was thanks to limited-run craft brews like Fandom Ale and Game Changer Ale, and part of it is thanks to a tiered system put in place to ensure customers have the best possible beer selection.

The bigger the restaurant, the more taps they might have — according to CNBC, some might have 30 beers on tap, but they're all monitored to make sure they're all popular enough the kegs run out before they compromise quality. And every restaurant subscribes to a three-tier system. At the top, there are beers that are in every BW3 across the country — brands like Budweiser. The second tier is made up of state, regional, or major-market favorites, and the last tier leaves it up to the individual restaurant to find something super-local, seasonal, or whatever customers request the most.

Vegetarian troubles

You might assume that anyone going to BW3 isn't going to be looking for a vegetarian option, but with more and more people opting to go meat-free, there's bound to be one in every group of friends heading out to watch the game. In 2016, one vegetarian customer sued after finding out menu items she thought were vegetarian — mozzarella sticks and french fries — were actually fried in beef tallow.

There was a catch, though, and it was a pretty big one that led to the suit being thrown out. BW3 never advertised or labeled any items as being vegetarian — she just assumed they were. According to Forbes, plaintiff Alexa Borenkoff and her attorney were going to continue to fight the suit even after getting it tossed out of court, saying BW3 was guilty of misrepresentation and omission. For BW3's side, they said Borenkoff hadn't told them about any dietary restrictions and couldn't prove that she'd actually been hurt by the beef tallow fries, so that was that.

National anthem controversy

In 2017, BW3 was sent scrambling to diffuse a story that started circulating on the internet. According to the claim, it was company policy to turn off or mute the national anthem, because it was too controversial to show. To add insult to injury, the incident that started it all was said to have happened on September 11.

Snopes says there was a little bit of truth to this one, and one California BW3 did have an employee who turned off the volume for the national anthem, and claim it was policy. But, they also add that BW3 not only came out with a statement saying that was never, ever their policy, but made it clear they were disappointed the whole thing ever happened — and said the BW3 franchise's CEO was a military veteran so clearly, this definitely wasn't a policy. The employee was no longer working for them by the time the statement was released, with the franchisee's CMO stating, "We don't know why he did that, and we wish he hadn't done it."

Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, and BW3s

The drama surrounding Tonya Harding's alleged engineered attack on figure skating rival Nancy Kerrigan was one of the highest-profile cases of the 1990s, and BW3 has a strange connection to it all. 

Founder Jim Disbrow wasn't just a chicken wing pioneer, he was also the chairman of the US Figure Skating Association International Committee when things went down. When it came time for Kerrigan to prove she had recovered enough to make a safe appearance at the Olympics, she needed to skate in front of a review panel who then reported to Disbrow. 

According to The Washington Post, Disbrow oversaw the whole thing and it was such a big deal, his 2002 obituary talked more about his role in the figure skating world than his role in founding BW3. When he passed away after a battle with brain cancer, the Star Tribune reported he had also been a Team Leader for the 1998 Olympic Team, the chair for the World Figure Skating Championships, and president of the USFSA after years of coaching and judging national and global competitions.

It's easy to make your own

BW3 has a ton of sauces: 16, to be exact, and 5 seasonings. You can order things like bourbon honey mustard, Parmesan garlic, lemon pepper, mango habanero, and Thai curry, and those are all great. But they're not Buffalo wings — not if you're a purist. It's actually super easy to make your own, authentic Buffalo wings, and we tell you how in this article.

It's definitely not difficult, and even though BW3 offers a ton of options when it comes to wing sauce, there's only one true Buffalo sauce. You can make it at home — you might even have the ingredients and you should definitely give it a shot, because it's not just brilliant on wings. It's great for fries, for chips, for burgers, for tacos… you get the idea. The recipe? Only ½ cup of Frank's RedHot Sauce (the original, not any of the funny versions) and ⅓ cup of butter. That's it! You're welcome.