Restaurant's opening heats up rivalries in 'wing capital of world'

Published March 28, 2007

When Vincent Lawrence retired after 20 years in the U.S. Navy, his dream was to start his own business.

He wanted to sell something he liked, and he liked Buffalo wings but was having a difficult time finding the right arrangement in his native Long Island, N.Y. So he moved to Pinellas Park.

"Pinellas County is the wing capital of the world," said Lawrence, 44, who earlier this month opened the only Wing Zone restaurant in the county at 11182 66th St. N.

Lawrence might be exaggerating a bit but there is a lot of wing activity in the Tampa Bay area. Wing Zone is the latest entrant from outside national chains including Buffalo Wild Wings, Quaker Steak and Lube and Wing Stop.

Lawrence points to homegrown businesses like Hooters, which originated in Clearwater in 1983 and is now world famous.

There's also WingHouse, which started a similar wings-sports-girls chain in Largo in 1994. Wing Zone sits in the shadow of a billboard for Mugs 'n' Jugs, a smaller entrant, but there is also Brandon-based Beef O'Brady's, which specializes in wings despite its bovine name.

"Outside of Buffalo, the Tampa-St. Pete area is huge for wing consumption," said Nick Vojnovic, president of the Beef O'Brady's chain that now has 220 outlets in 19 states but counts 50 in the Tampa Bay area. "We get all those transplants down here."

Vojnovic said he sells 70-million wings a year. He said his supplier, Gold Kist, tells him the area is hot for wings.

"If the chicken supplier says they're selling a lot of wings, then they're selling a lot of wings," said Central Connecticut State University geography professor John Harmon, who compiled a history of wings. He traces their national spread to a 1981 New Yorker story by Calvin Trillin, who researched wing supplies.

Harmon said wings caught on fast and early in Florida from retiree demand. Wing Zone has both a New York and Florida origin.

When Matt Friedman left Long Island for the University of Florida, he was surprised that there were no wing places in Gainesville.

So, in 1991 he and partner Adam Scott started cooking them and selling them from their Pi Kappa Phi frat house. With business coming fast - and some city pressure - the two moved to a storefront that led to a 100-store Wing Zone chain.

"We wouldn't be opening stores there if there wasn't demand for the product," said Friedman, who returns today to UF for seminars in entrepreneurship.

He said Wing Zone will nearly double its Florida stores this year and is high on Tampa Bay, which now has only two stores.

Wing Zone is unique, Friedman said, because it focuses on the wings. The chain offers its 25 flavors in-store, for carryout or for delivery to appeal to the die-hard that has to have product.

"A lot of bars see wings as an opportunity to sell more beer," he said. "We have to rely on the quality of our food, not cold beer or cute waitresses."

Wings have taken off from their humble beginnings. The standard history says they originated at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo 43 years ago as a way to get rid of unwanted chicken parts. Trillin's piece also mentions an African-American restaurant called John Young's Wings 'n Things that sold a similar product. Trillin researched suppliers to see which came first, but records were inconclusive.

Regardless of which history you abide, wings have exploded into an industry. Harmon said pizza chains aided their spread. Now wings are following the same national diffusion into corporate franchises that pizza pioneered.

Vojnovic said at peak wing-demand time around the Super Bowl, he pays more for wings than for chicken breasts.

Lawrence said on board ship, the cooks would treat themselves not with steaks but with wings. He didn't work in the kitchen, but cozied up to the mess staff for a taste of home.

Wings are addictive to some tastes, Lawrence said, and people have hit his Wing Zone with almost too much business, often from those hooked on the chain from another location.

"A tremendous amount of business is word of mouth," he said. "We already have customers I know on a first-name basis."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.

Fast Facts:

Wing Zone

11182 66th St. N, Pinellas Park, 549-9663

11124 N 30th St., Tampa, 813 978-9464

2006 sales: $39-million

The competition

Buff Wild Wings, six stores in the wider Tampa Bay area, 415 in 37 states

2006 sales: $656-million

Wingstop, 550 total stores existing or under construction, two in Hillsborough, none in Pinellas

2006 sales: $118-million

Quaker Steak and Lube, 26 locations, one in Pinellas Park

2006 sales: $48-million

WingHouse, 22 locations, all but two in Florida, eight in Tampa Bay

2006 sales: $40-million

Beef O'Brady's, 220 outlets in 19 states, 50 in the Tampa Bay area

2006 sales: $148-million

Hooters, 435 locations in 46 states and 20 countries, 52 in Florida, nine in Tampa Bay

2006 sales: $875-million

Sources: Restaurant and Institution magazine

John Harmon, Central Connecticut State University geography professor's history of wings: www.geography.ccsu.edu/harmonj/atlas/buffwing.htm