More than a half-million people visited Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants on Super Bowl Sunday. On Monday, a new owner counted up the receipts.
"They served 14 million wings in one day. That sounds like a pretty successful brand to me," Paul Brown, the new boss, said Tuesday. "Our number one focus is not to mess anything up."
With the closing of its $2.9 billion purchase of Buffalo Wild Wings, Atlanta-based Arby's Restaurant Group renamed itself Inspire Brands Inc. and unveiled plans to buy other restaurants. The company will target chains that, like Buffalo Wild Wings, are distinctive in their niche, have a successful track record and still have room to grow.
Brown, a former top brands executive at Hilton Worldwide, said the idea of forming a portfolio-type company started brewing two years ago between executives at Arby's and Roark Capital Group, the Atlanta investment firm that is the majority owner of Arby's and more than a dozen other smaller restaurant chains.
Last February, when Golden Valley-based Buffalo Wild Wings was in the midst of a proxy battle with an activist investor, the Arby's and Roark executives decided to sound it out.
"We knew that we had to start with the right first two companies coming together," Brown said. "In parallel, the Buffalo Wild Wings opportunity presented itself. I don't think it could have been scripted more perfectly."
The companies agreed on terms in November, with Buffalo Wild Wings shareholders offered $157 a share, a price that was in the middle of its trading range early last year but well above the $98 it fell to in August.
After going public in 2003, Buffalo Wild Wings delivered one of the best investment performances of any restaurant company. Its fast growth began to level off in 2015 and 2016, however, the proxy battle in late 2016 and early last year unveiled differing ideas about its direction.
The activist investor, Mick McGuire of San Francisco-based Marcato Capital, wanted Buffalo Wild Wings to sell most of its company-owned restaurants and rely almost exclusively on franchisee ownership of its locations. The company's executives favored its 50-50 mix of company-owned and franchised restaurants, now totaling about 1,200 locations.
Arby's owns and operates about one-third of its 3,400 restaurants, with the rest owned and operated by franchisees. Brown said company ownership helps drive innovation in restaurant chains. "We do not intend to take the radical refranchising approach that's been discussed" at Buffalo Wild Wings, he said.
"We think the franchise community of Buffalo Wild Wings is a great one," he added. "The 50-50 mix, I don't see that changing dramatically, if at all, in the near term and maybe not in the medium term."
Brown will work at Inspire's headquarters in Atlanta, but Buffalo Wild Wings will continue to be chiefly run from Golden Valley. He selected Alex Ware, Buffalo Wild Wings' chief financial officer, to be its interim president. Sally Smith, who became chief executive of Buffalo Wild Wings in 1996, retired with the closing of the deal.
Brown, whose management team is credited with turning around Arby's in part through introductions of new sandwiches and other items, said they have learned some lessons about product development that they will bring to Buffalo Wild Wings. The Arby's team, he added, is already taking notes on advancements Buffalo Wild Wings has made in mobile ordering, takeout and delivery services.
But Arby's and Buffalo Wild Wings offer different foods to different sets of customers — and it will stay that way.
"It's important that the brands remain distinct," Brown said. "We will not be blending them in front of consumers or franchisees."