How Buffalo Wild Wings and Inspire Brands disrupted the restaurant industry

NRF Nexus: Leveraging technology to transform the guest and team member experience

Imagine overseeing a chain of 1,279 sports bars scattered across the United States — and every day is Super Bowl Sunday.

Also: There is no indoor dining at these sports bars. You can only offer off-premise options.

Do you have the technology in place to consistently deliver a great experience for both your guests and your team members?

That was the reality Buffalo Wild Wings President Lyle Tick faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. “From a demand perspective, we had demand for multiple Super Bowls every week,” Tick said during a session at NRF Nexus in July.

NRF Nexus 2022 recap

Take a look at more content from this year’s event in Southern California.

While BWW had some digital foundations, including online ordering and an app tied to its loyalty club, it was predominantly an on-site experience. Everything evolved around the physical locations, which made up 79 percent of the business.

“Overnight, our operations folks had to implement on the front line a completely different operating model,” Tick said. “It just hadn’t been contemplated and our tech platforms were not prepared for it. Our user experience was not prepared for it, and we ran into relatively significant problems.”

Luckily, BWW is part of the Inspire Brands family of restaurants, which includes Arby’s, Baskin-Robbins, Dunkin’, Jimmy John’s, Rusty Taco and Sonic Drive-In restaurants. Inspire Brands Chief Information Officer Raghu Sagi joined Tick for the session about technological transformation in the restaurant industry.

Sagi said being part of a restaurant portfolio that shares technology development and support enabled BWW to scale up its existing digital platform very quickly to manage the demand, and, eventually, outperform its competition.

“It was tough in the first six to eight weeks where platforms went down because they weren’t built to scale as if every day was Super Bowl,” Sagi said.

Sagi and Tick relied on Inspire’s in-house digital and technology teams, including resources from other brands within the portfolio group, to pivot quickly and focus on stabilizing the already-existing technology and platforms.

“We were able to bring the people who have done this, who have come to us from other industries that scale,” Sagi said. “But I think if we weren’t a portfolio company … where I could bring people together, it would have been difficult to do what we did during that difficult period.”

Giving guests a choice

Now Sagi and Tick are focused on maintaining that momentum to continue improving the guest and team member experience — finding those barriers that technology can overcome and experiences that technology can enhance. “This year, we’re taking a relatively giant leap in that journey to the tech-enabled sports bar that improves our guests’ and our team members’ experience with what we’re calling the ‘choice model,’” Tick said.

The choice model allows guests to scan an integrated QR code at the table and decide how engaged they want to be with BWW team members. Guests can choose to order, add to the order and pay all on their own, do a hybrid with some team member interaction, or have a full-service restaurant experience.

For guests, the choice model can improve speed and accuracy. For team members, the model frees them up to be more efficient and focus on more value-added tasks; for managers, it’s another tool to deal with ongoing labor constraints.

“In our choice sports bars, we’re actually seeing overall satisfaction and likelihood to return is outpacing our non-choice sports bars,” Tick said. “It goes back to the name: ‘Choice.’ If people feel they have the choice to opt into it, and it’s not being forced on them, they do it a lot better, and what we see is once someone engages once, they come again and use more of it.”

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Bringing legendary experiences home

BWW has ramped up plans to develop a full off-premise, tech-enabled version of the Buffalo Wild Wings experience, launching the BWW Go format last year. BWW Gos are intended to be pick-up stations for delivery and takeout in areas where there isn’t an existing BWW location.

“We want to be part of those legendary experiences at our places or at yours. We see it as an incredibly complementary occasion,” Tick said. “It’s a great opportunity to both bring new consumers in and provide existing consumers that love us with another occasion to come and get us.”

The experimental format yields another bonus, Tick said, gathering data for not just BWW but for other brands in the Inspire portfolio to improve off-premise and even in-house operations.

“I think one of the great things about Inspire operating and owning some restaurants is we’re using our capital to get it stood up, to learn really quickly, and it becomes another platform from which we figure out, ‘How do we create the most efficient and most automated version of an off-premise experience for the guest and the team member that ultimately we can bring back into the sports bars?’”

While each of the restaurant brands under the Inspire umbrella are unique, having a strategic shared service model does have its benefits. “Anything we do,” Sagi said, “instead of helping just one brand, if it can help all the brands, we can get the best investment return.”

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