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.

Buffalo Wild Wings 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 Buffalo Wild Wings 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 Buffalo Wild Wings big problems

In 2013, Buffalo Wild Wings 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, Buffalo Wild Wings'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, Buffalo Wild Wings 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 at Buffalo Wild Wings?

Half-Price Wings Tuesday at Buffalo Wild Wings 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 Buffalo Wild Wings'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 Buffalo Wild Wings to stay profitable and keep the doors open.

Traditional wings aren't the biggest seller at Buffalo Wild Wings

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 Buffalo Wild Wings. 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 Buffalo Wild Wings was reporting they were selling more boneless wings. Efficiency, or sacrilege?

What are those boneless wings at Buffalo Wild 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 Buffalo Wild Wings, 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 Buffalo Wild Wings 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, Buffalo Wild Wings 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.

Buffalo Wild Wings takes 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 Buffalo Wild Wings'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 Buffalo Wild Wings 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.

Buffalo Wild Wings had vegetarian troubles

You might assume that anyone going to Buffalo Wild Wings 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. Buffalo Wild Wings 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 Buffalo Wild Wings was guilty of misrepresentation and omission. For Buffalo Wild Wings'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.

Buffalo Wild Wings had a national anthem controversy

In 2017, Buffalo Wild Wings 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 Buffalo Wild Wings 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 Buffalo Wild Wings 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 Buffalo Wild Wings

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 Buffalo Wild Wings wings

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.

Buffalo Wild Wings has an unlikely sibling: Arby's

Way back in ye olden days of 2017, Buffalo Wild Wings admitted they were struggling. They were starting to sell corporate-owned locations off to franchisees, and that's always something of a questionable sign.

Then, more news went public: Business Insider reported that they had sealed a deal with Arby's parent company, Roark Capital Group, to sell Buffalo Wild Wings in its entirety for $2.9 billion.

But there was good news, too. Arby's had been struggling as well, and in 2013, a new CEO took over and instigated a series of changes. The result was impressive, and by 2016, Arby's was seeing record sales numbers. Those are the same hands that Buffalo Wild Wings passed into, so the hope was that Buffalo Wild Wings would turn around, as well. 

Customers were immediately hopeful that they'd see some crossover, particularly between Arby's famous horsey sauce and the signature sauces of Buffalo Wild Wings. Sure enough, by early 2018 there was a crossover sauce... but according to The Daily Meal, it was only available in three locations and just for a few days.

Buffalo Wild Wings tried to get into the pizza business

Pizza and wings go together like peanut butter and jelly, but when Buffalo Wild Wings decided to give pizza a shot, it didn't work out like they'd hoped.

You don't remember their pizza places? That's not surprising. According to Fast Casual, they started with two locations in Minnesota in 2014. The restaurants were called PizzaRev, and the idea was basically a sort of Chipotle of pizza. Customers built their own pizza from a series of around 30 toppings, then waited just three minutes while it was baked. 

But not only were plans to open more restaurants put on hold three years after they opened their doors, but Buffalo Wild Wings then announced in 2017 (via Bring Me The News) that the existing stores were going to be closing. The problem? Other chains — like Pie Five Pizza and Blaze Pizza — had the same idea at the same time. They found out quickly that it was possible to have too much of a good thing, and Pie Five Pizza also closed their Minnesota restaurants, also at about the same time.

A Buffalo Wild Wings was the site of a tragic death

In 2019, a Buffalo Wild Wings in Massachusetts was the site of a tragic accident. According to Chemical & Engineering News, it started when one employee spilled a chemical called Scale Kleen onto the floor. Later, another employee started to scrub the floor with a different cleaner, this one called Super 8. The combination of the two chemicals began to bubble and release toxic fumes. Customers and employees alike evacuated, but when the manager attempted to clean up the mess, he was overcome by the fumes. Manager Ryan Baldera was hospitalized, and later died.

So, what happened? The two cleaners were a mix of acid and bleach, and they combined to give off chlorine gas. That's some serious stuff — it was used as a chemical weapon during World War I, and when it hits the lungs, it creates an even more dangerous mix of chemicals including hydrochloric acid.

This isn't the only case of something like this happening, either. In 2017 alone, there were 2,284 cases of people being exposed to chlorine gas after mixing acid and bleach. Most restaurants give employees safety training, but accidents still occur and sometimes, they're tragic.

Buffalo Wild Wings had a confusing ordering system

One of the basic rules of business is that when customers order, they should know exactly what they're ordering and what they can expect to get. Buffalo Wild Wings has had a chronic problem with that, and in 2020, they announced things were going to change.

Originally, customers could place their order for six, 10, 15, 20, or 30 wings. That's pretty straightforward. Then, they changed that ordering system to small, medium, and large. That's... less-than-straightforward. The reason, says Restaurant Business, was that the wings they were getting varied in size, to the point where some patrons were feeling cheated by small wings. Orders started going out based on weight and sizes of wings, but when one person at the table gets 6 wings and another gets 8 — even though they ordered the same size — that's not going to sit well, either.

Customers were understandably unhappy, and Buffalo Wild Wings announced they were going back to the old way of ordering. They said: "... we verified everything we heard in the consumer research: Our guests prefer wing count. Of course, there will always be slight differences in weights, but our consumers told us they would prefer to have transparency when ordering."

Buffalo Wild Wings has had a massive problem with accusations of racism

In early 2019, a Buffalo Wild Wings location in Kansas found itself in the middle of some terrible headlines. According to The Kansas City Star, a former employee was suing after he was fired — an action that he says was taken after he reported discrimination and an unsafe, hostile work environment.

Former employee Gary Lovelace said that the work environment was "racially hostile," and that they were regularly told to refuse some customers based on race, age, and disability. Lovelace reported the conditions that allegedly arrived with the hiring of a new general manager, and says he was fired for it, after working there for 12 years. 

Just a few months later, they were making headlines again. This time, Eater reported that they had fired two managers at a location in Naperville, Illinois, after said employees inquired about the race of a group of customers, and repeatedly tried to relocate them away from a group of regulars who did not want to sit near the black customers. 

Then, in March 2020, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on an incident where a Buffalo Wild Wings security guard — who didn't actually have a private security license, but did have a criminal case open against him — pepper-sprayed a man who walked in to place a to-go order. The customer, Najjar Abdullah Jr., filed a lawsuit for discrimination.

Buffalo Wild Wings is going after the millennial crowd

If you haven't been at a Buffalo Wild Wings lately, you'll find that when you go back, it looks a little different. That's because they're giving the whole place an overhaul, and according to Business Insider, they're doing it in hopes of attracting a new, millennial crowd.

Inspire Brands CEO Paul Brown — the same person who turned Arby's around just a few years before — said they were targeting millennial sports fans who liked to hang out with friends... but found life getting in the way of that. "And as he's getting older and life gets more complicated, those moments that you can just go hang out with your friends get fewer and fewer," he explained of their ideal customer. Buffalo Wild Wings wants to be the go-to place.

March Madness has always been a big deal for the chain, and they were using the 2019 event to kick off their new advertising campaign, updated menus, new employee uniforms, and new image. They're aiming to be a favorite place to hang out with friends, have some drinks, some wings, and watch whatever sport happens to be in season.

One of the first changes is definitely geared toward courting millennials concerned about the environment. Gone are the plastic sauce containers and paper boats, and in are metal trays. That — and other changes — are made to create "the kind of atmosphere that the next generation of customer is looking for."