Atlanta-based chicken restaurant concept Wing Zone has launched its first restaurant in Singapore with a franchisee who plans to open more than 100 outlets in six Asian countries over the next decade.
Wing Zone, founded by two University of Florida students delivering wings to college buddies in the early 1990s, has expanded to more than 100 locations, including stores in more than 10 countries. Most are located within urban malls and shopping centers and offer delivery service.
Before Singapore, the chain already had two restaurants in Malaysia as part of a broad international expansion plan kick-started when recession hit the U.S. in 2008. Wing Zone will have agreements in place covering 45 countries by the first quarter of this year and 80 countries by 2017.
Hair Parra, the Venezuelan-born international vice president who has helped take Papa John’s and Domino’s pizza overseas, said Wing Zone found an ideal partner in Johnny Mayani, the 34-year-old master franchiser over the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.
Mr. Mayani is working with his two younger brothers on their first restaurant, which held a grand opening in Singapore last month. Mr. Parra and Wing Zone co-founders Matt Friedman and Adam Scott attended and were impressed by the launch event, which had a band, dragon dancers and more in celebration of Chinese New Year.
“They are very aggressive, and they’re putting their life into this,” Mr. Parra said of the Mayanis. “They’re putting their savings into the business, and they’re looking to succeed.”
Wing Zone is still a private company that has resisted the lure of private equity firms, which gives its leaders the luxury of taking a measured approach to new markets even as they aggressively seek expansion.
“We are very blessed, let’s put it that way. We are a private company. We really are not in a hurry to sell; we don’t respond to New York, to the stocks,” Mr. Parra said.
In other words, they’re open-minded, but they won’t rush into a new country without the right partner, Mr. Parra said. He has turned down deals in China, Mexico, the United Kingdom and other seemingly attractive markets for that reason. The key to long-term success in the restaurant business is passion, and he has to feel that from the potential franchisee, he said.
“In the food industry, you like it or you hate it. They need to have the heart. There is no middle ground,” he told Global Atlanta.
Wing Zone’s partners in places like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica and other countries tend to be young, entrepreneurial and excited about American brands.
Of course, the market also needs to be attractive from a consumer standpoint, but American brands are welcome in the developing world.
McDonald’s made news this week by opening its first store in Vietnam, with consumers lining up to try Big Macs for the first time. Mr. Parra said the legacy of the U.S. war with Vietnam holds no sway in the minds of its consumers.
“Don’t ever believe that because we had that big fight with them that they hate us,” he said.
Wing Zone does extensive market testing, visiting a country about four times before opening a store. After the decision is made, they test all 17 of their wing flavorings on local consumers, only adopting those that fit the local palate. That logic also applies to new menu items. In Russia, Wing Zone plans to offer soups when its first store opens there in two months. In Malaysia, customers can order whole chicken legs.
“It doesn’t matter what you feel or what I believe. It’s what the people believe,” Mr. Parra said.
In August, the company will take on one of its biggest adaptations yet. It plans to open a freestanding store with a drive-thru in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny but oil-rich African nation along the equator.
Plans are in the works also for stores in Guatemala, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago.
View all Wing Zone locations here.