The Untold Truth Of Wingstop

There are few foods more universally loved than the chicken wing. It should come as no surprise then, to see the success Wingstop has become. Born in Dallas, Texas, the chicken wing chain has grown to include more than 1,500 locations around the world. 

But truth be told, success was never a sure thing during the company's early years. Yes, chicken wings had been popular for many years before Wingstop arrived, but most restaurants relegated these savory bites to appetizer or side dish status. Wingstop, on the other hand, wanted to serve only chicken wings and make them the star of the plate. By doing so, it has garnered a legion of diehard fans. 

But even the most devout Wingstop loyalist likely doesn't know the whole truth about this chicken wing empire. From its unparalleled growth and huge Canadian expansion plans to its restaurant design of the future and connections to a famous rapper and NFL quarterback, this is the untold truth of Wingstop.

Wingstop was founded by a serial restauranteur

In the late 1980s, Antonio Swad was the proud owner of the Dallas-area pizza restaurant Pizza Patrón (via Franchising.com). As the years went on, he noticed there was an overabundance of pizza places in area, which led him to the question: Why not serve something else? He came up with the idea to get into the chicken wing business and started by giving out samples at Pizza Patrón. Not long after, Swad went all-in on the chicken wing concept.

The first Wingstop opened in Garland, Texas in 1994. By this time, Pizza Patrón had grown to four stores. Swad spent years working nearly every type of job at both restaurants, including fry cook, customer service specialist, and even general contractor. He eventually sold both businesses when each closed in on 100 locations (via Restaurant Business Online).

But restaurant ownership is clearly in Swad's blood, so the industry veteran wasn't out of the game for long. In 2019, he opened a new restaurant in Mesquite, Texas called Porch Swing. The Southern-themed eatery features menu items such as grilled meatloaf, pork loin, shrimp, and chicken fried steak, as well as an in-house pie shop. "This concept revealed itself over time and in the end gelled together like no other," Swad said in a statement. "It's a blend of contemporary and classic Southern touches with a real social, comfortable, fun atmosphere. And it's all about the soul foods we love and crave."

Wingstop is one of the fastest growing restaurant chains

Wingstop has gone from a single restaurant in 1994 to roughly 1,500 U.S. locations today (via QSR Magazine). That puts it amongst the largest chain restaurants in America, according to Restaurant Business Online, and one of the top 10 chicken brands.

While the up-and-coming fast-food empire's steady growth during its first 25 years was quite impressive, Wingstop has really stepped on the accelerator since then. According to QSR Magazine, the company was the fourth fastest-growing chain restaurant in 2020 based on number of locations. The chain added a net of 153 stores during those 12 months, more than Taco Bell, Wendy's, Shake Shack, Five Guys, Whataburger, and Arby's combined. Only Starbucks, Domino's, and Jersey Mike's opened more restaurants.

Not only is Wingstop expanding its footprint at a higher rate than its competitors, but it's also increasing its revenue at a nearly unmatchable clip. The chicken chain grew its sales by 31% in 2020, according to Restaurant Business Online, the second-largest increase among the country's restaurant chains. This came on the heels of a 19% bump in 2019. All told, Wingstop's system-wide sales grew by more than $600 million in just two years.

The chain has no intentions of slowing down, either. It has a goal of reaching 4,000 locations in the United States and 3,000 stores abroad.

Wingstop is coming to Canada in a big way

Wingstop has become a global brand. Yet, of all the countries the chicken chain has expanded into, our neighbor to the north is not one of them. That is all about to change very soon, however. In April 2021, Wingstop announced it would be opening 100 locations across Canada over the next 10 years.

"Wingstop in Canada marks another key step toward our stated goal of becoming a Top 10 Global Brand and further validates the portability of our brand on a global level," Nicolas Boudet, Wingstop's president of international, said in a statement. "We currently see Wingstop addressing a need in the Canadian market with our unique brand positioning and product offering and believe this is a market where we can replicate the success we've experienced in the U.S. based on Canadians' appreciation and craving for bold flavor and high-quality product."

The first store is set to open in Toronto sometime in 2022. Wingstop teased the opening in late 2021 when, according to blogTO, it gave out free wings from a food truck that traveled around the city. "People have been very excited about Wingstop coming to Toronto and us bringing our flavors and made-to-order wings to Toronto," a Wingstop spokesperson told the outlet. It appears the highly anticipated store opening is not far away, as a storefront in Toronto is already covered in Wingstop signs (via Daily Hive). It's now just a matter of time.

Wingstop became a public company in 2015

Wingstop has long been a restaurant of the people. Now, it's a restaurant owned by the people. In 2015, the business became a public company, according to Reuters. This means anyone can buy shares of the restaurant chain on the stock market.

Wingstop priced its initial public offering at $19 per share, which valued the company at roughly $543 million. That was higher than the expected range of $16-$18 per share, which was set earlier in the week. But it still might have been too low as investors were ready to pounce at the opportunity to get into the chicken wing business. By the end of Wingstop's initial day on the market, its stock price rose 60 percent to approximately $30.50, according to the Nation's Restaurant News. "We have something that's attractive to investors," Wingstop president and CEO Charlie Morrison told the outlet. "We've got all the growth characteristics of a fast-casual concept, but we have the size and scale of this brand at 700 locations, and the cash-flow characteristics of a best-in-class franchisor." In total, the first day of selling shares raised more than $110 million for Wingstop.

Troy Aikman was once a Wingstop spokesman

Few things go together better than chicken wings and football. So, who better to serve as a spokesperson for Wingstop than a famous quarterback? In 2003, former NFL quarterback Troy Aikman signed to become a spokesman for Wingstop (via ESPN). During his playing days, which ended in 2000, Aikman was a member of the Dallas Cowboys. Wingstop is based out of Dallas. "At the time, it was a natural fit," Aikman told ESPN. "They had a Wingstop right across from our Valley Ranch training facility, and I used to meet teammates there on Thursday night."

The quarterback's relationship with the chicken wing chain grew in 2011 when he was named to the company's board of directors. As part of his compensation, Aikman was awarded a significant number of shares in the business (via Dallas Business News). When Wingstop when public in 2015, the Hall of Fame quarterback cashed in — big time. According to ESPN, Aikman made millions of dollars by selling a portion of his stocks during Wingstop's initial public offering. Declining to provide the exact amount, Aikman only disclosed that the total was more than he made in his first four years in the NFL, which was $6 million.

Rapper Rick Ross owns 25 Wingstop restaurants

Wingstop clearly has a robust fanbase. But amongst this group of diehard devotees, one chicken wing lover stands above the rest: Rick Ross. The rapper has made his love for Wingstop well known. His fanaticism goes so far, in fact, that Ross doesn't just eat at the restaurants — he owns them. According to Complex, Ross is the proud owner of 25 Wingstop franchise locations.

The musician first thought about getting into the Wingstop business after his career took off in the late 2000s, he told Forbes. "I began having those thoughts every time I pulled up to the restaurant," he said. "Like, 'Yo! This is something I need to do.'" He opened the doors to his initial location in 2011, and he hasn't slowed down ever since. "My personal passion for it hasn't wavered any, over all the years I've loved Wingstop," he told Complex. "You see, I'm still repping it like it's the first time I had it. And when I eat Wingstop, it's still like the first time I had it. And on a business side, when I went and sat down with the CEO, Charlie Morrison, he knew I had no experience being a franchisee. He knew I didn't have the time sitting in a franchise, but he saw my vision and my passion. He opened the doors for me. He didn't just let me follow my dreams; he let me go to that next level."

Wingstop fans have inspired limited-time flavors

Wingstop turned 25 in July 2019 and to celebrate the anniversary, the chain offered an expanded menu of 25 new items over the course of 25 days. Among these unique options were six new wing flavors: Lemon Garlic, Dragon's Breath, Bayou BBQ, Mango Volcano, Hot Lemon, and Atomic BBQ. According to the chain, these original varieties were inspired by its fans' creative remixes of some of Wingstop's 11 mainstay flavors. For instance, Hot Lemon is a combination of Original Hot and Lemon Pepper, while Bayou BBQ is a mix of Hickory Smoked BBQ and Cajun. The homemade creations became so popular on social media that Wingstop chose to give the people what they wanted.

Knowing their origin story, it should come as no surprise to learn that the flavors were a hit with customers. So much so that Wingstop brought back three of them in February 2021. Starting on Valentine's Day, which the company says is one of its busiest days of the year, Hot Lemon, Bayou BBQ, Lemon Garlic reappeared on Wingstop menus nationwide for a limited time. Wingstop wasn't done. It went back and found thousands of social media posts that mentioned these flavors and asked for them to be put back on the menu. As a thank you, the chain gave each user that wrote one of these posts a $10 promo code to use on an order of wings.

Wingstop's sales shot up during the pandemic

It's no secret that many restaurants went out of business during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wingstop, however, had a much different experience. Not only did the chicken wing chain not suffer during this time, it saw record growth.

According to Restaurant Business Online, Wingstop's systemwide sales increased nearly 30% in 2020 to a whopping $2 billion. Much of the company's success was thanks to how well suited it was to handle the complicated logistics brought on by COVID-19. "Having a robust digital infrastructure already in place and a proper delivery partner have more to do with the strength of the brand than anything else," CEO Charlie Morrison said. Wingstop's digital platforms already accounted for nearly half of its total sales prior to the pandemic. In addition, 2020 was coincidentally the first year the chain had delivery available across its footprint.

It wasn't just the bottom line where Wingstop experienced a banner year. The brand also increased its total number of restaurants by 153, surpassing its own expectation of 120 to 130 new locations. This was due in no small part to Wingstop's steadfast — and creative — franchisees. "We're focusing efforts on ways to gain the attention of local municipalities to get these restaurants open," Morrison said in July of 2020. "Some team members have figured out how to Facetime permits and get them taken care of. We've shared those best practices across the company and it has worked well."

You can order Wingstop through social media and text message

We've all been there — sometimes a phone call is just too much effort. That was Wingstop's thinking when, in 2016, it launched a social media ordering platform that allowed customers to place orders on Twitter and Facebook Messenger. According to the company, this technology was the first of its kind.

All a customer has to do to get started is begin a conversation with Wingstop on one of the two social media platforms. The user is then taken to a private conversation where they can customize and complete their order. They'll also be informed of the nearest Wingstop location and estimated pick-up time. "Wingstop has always engaged with consumers who talk about their cravings for our wings on social media," Flynn Dekker, Wingstop's chief marketing officer, said in a statement. "Now, we are giving those same fans a convenient way to place orders via social media right from their phones, tablets, or even watches."

Wingstop made things even easier for customers the very next year with its SMS text ordering platform (via Fast Casual). Hungry users can simply text "order" to "94647" ("WINGS"), enter their zip code, and select a menu item. "Texting has become one of the leading methods of communication today," then-CEO Stacy Peterson said in a press release. "So what's more natural than inviting our fans to feed their flavor cravings by placing an order in the way that feels most comfortable and familiar?"

Some Wingstop employees' unsanitary practices have gone viral

It hasn't been all smooth sailing for Wingstop during its meteoric rise. In the past few years, the chain has garnered some negative publicity thanks to a few rogue employees and the power of social media. In 2016, a Colorado Wingstop employee was filmed dunking her head into a bucket of chicken and rubbing her face in the food, according to the Daily Mail. The video was posted on Facebook and spread online. The owner of the location referred to the employee's transgression as a "bad judgement call," but insisted the chicken was never served to customers. "The health and safety of our customers is of the utmost importance to myself and to the Wingstop brand and the actions displayed in this video are not acceptable," he said in the statement. "We have confirmed that the food in the video was not served to customers and was immediately thrown away after the video was taken."

More recently, a TikTok video gave a behind-the-scenes look at some unsanitary practices in one Wingstop kitchen. According to the Daily Dot, a video posted last year by a user who claimed to be an assistant manager included accusations that employees were not allowed to wear gloves and were told to use food that has fallen on the floor. One commentator, a Wingstop employee, claimed that these practices were not company-wide. "It all depends on management and where [you're] located," they wrote.

Wingstop recently added chicken thighs to its menu

In case you didn't hear the terrifying news at the time: there was a chicken wing shortage across the country in 2021 (via Vox). What could have been a crippling blow to Wingstop instead turned out to be an opportunity. In June 2021, the company launched Thighstop, a completely virtual brand that sold, you guessed it, chicken thighs (via CNN). Thighstop did not have any dine-in restaurants. Instead, customers ordered online at Thighstop.com or through DoorDash. The menu included the same 11 sauces you would find at any Wingstop and the chicken thighs came in both bone-in and boneless varieties.

For Wingstop, the new brand helped in two ways. First off, it improved its bottom line. Wingstop CEO Charlie Morrison told CNN Business that the price of a pound of chicken wings had risen from 98 cents to $3.22 in just a year. Chicken thighs, meanwhile, were about half that price.

The second benefit for Wingstop was creating a larger market for the less-popular piece of meat. Just a few months after launching Thighstop, Wingstop added thighs to its menu. "When launching Thighstop as a virtual brand, we knew our fans would be excited to try thighs," Wingstop's Chief Growth Officer Marisa Carona said in a statement. "The response was overwhelming ... They asked, so we've answered — we're bringing it all together by adding thighs to the Wingstop menu to amplify our full flavor experience."

Wingstop recently opened a restaurant of the future

Wingstop is not your grandfather's fast-food restaurant. Nowhere is that more true than the chain's ordering system. The days of visiting a Wingstop location, ordering at the counter, and paying for cash are coming to a close. In fact, the company has a goal of 100% digital transactions.

So, what will that mean for the brick-and-mortar restaurants? It means they'll look a lot like the newest Wingstop location in Dallas, Texas. Dubbed the "restaurant of the future," the eatery will serve as a prototype for how the chain can deliver the optimal digital experience. The restaurant has no dining tables, offering only delivery and takeout. And there's no cash accepted. Instead, available QR codes allow in-store ordering and payment.

The prototype restaurant, which opened earlier this year near Wingstop's Global Support Center, will also serve as a test site for new flavors and equipment. "A glimpse into our [Dallas] location is a glimpse into the future of Wingstop — focused on 100 percent digital transactions, seamless back of house operations, ongoing flavor innovation, and a business model centered around our fans, who love to dine off-premise with friends, while gaming, or just about anywhere you can think of," Chief Growth Officer Marisa Carona said in a statement. "We're excited to continue optimizing the size and layout of our restaurants as we drive toward our vision of becoming a Top 10 Global Restaurant Brand."