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The Secret Sauce at Buffalo Wild Wings: Wings, Beer and Sports

Buffalo Wild Wings
Source: Buffalo Wild Wings
Buffalo Wild Wings

Think of the all-time great food-and-beverage pairings, and you'll probably put chicken wings and beer near the top of the list.

Perhaps nobody has capitalized more on the combination than Buffalo Wild Wings, the national restaurant chain whose tagline is "Your Home For Wings. Beer. Sports." While the wings may get top billing, the beer is never far from top of mind.

"We have the advantage of being the largest pourer of draft beer in the county, if not the world," said Andy Dismore, vice president of Food & Beverage Experience at Buffalo Wild Wings. "If you're going to put beer as the second [item] in your tagline, then you better know what you're doing."

When Buffalo Wild Wings opened its first restaurant in 1982, the U.S. beer marketplace was a lackluster scene. Still the restaurant put an emphasis on offering consumers a variety of beer. Even 15 years ago, it was not unusual for the chain to offer more than a dozen different beers on tap. As the American craft beer scene grew, so did the variety of beer at the chain.

Today, the typical Buffalo Wild Wings offers as many as 30 different taps, providing customers a wide variety of beer brands to pair with its wings, but the key to the strategy's success is having boundaries.

"At a certain point we draw a line in the sand. We won't do anything that will get in the way of serving a quality draft beer," said Patrick Kirk, Buffalo Wild Wings Manager of Beverage Innovation.

"We have to be able to turn that beer over quickly," he said. "We're not going to let the (number of) brands of beer or the amount of tap handles get in the way of the quality of beer in the glass."

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Source: Buffalo Wild Wings

In order to best manage the flow of beer in and out of its restaurants, the company has instituted a three-layered system. It starts with its national program, or the brands like Budweiser and Miller Coors that are offered in every Buffalo Wild Wings nationwide. The consistency of having the same brands in every restaurant allows the chain to leverage those relationships in terms of national promotions, marketing and sponsorships.

The second tier is regional beers, which are chosen on a state-by-state or major-market basis. So where customers might find Deschutes Brewery on tap in every Portland, Ore., restaurant, in Boston they might find Harpoon Brewery instead.

The last layer is a flexible option that allows individual restaurants to have the freedom to make choices based on a local favorite, a seasonal offering or what its customers are asking to be stocked.

As the No. 1 draft account for more than 50 different beer brands, Buffalo Wild Wings is able to gather intelligence from its distributors as to which brands it should carry within in its more than 900 restaurants.

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"What's really worked for us is to have the ability to serve the beers our guests are really demanding and asking for," Kirk said.

"It's very important to us as a national chain to be able to go into every market and understand it so we can celebrate the local work that's being done and offer up those local choices at the individual restaurant level," Dismore added.

Still at the end of the day, the company must never lose sight of its mission.

"We may not ever find ourselves in the same position as the local gastro-pub, carrying a 15-percent barley wine because I can't think of a time I'd want to sit down and watch a basketball or hockey game with a big barley wine, it's just not the right setting," he said. "But we do want to bring the local options and choices to our customers so there's a relevance to their experience."

As for the sports piece of the Buffalo Wild Wings experience, the company is partnering with the NCAA to be "The Official Hangout of NCAA March Madness."

The college basketball postseason is traditionally a key part of the year for the restaurant and the partnership is a move to cement Buffalo Wild Wings as the go-to place to watch the games. Last year alone, consumers ate nearly 70 million traditional and boneless chicken wings during the college basketball postseason.

For Dismore, March is the perfect example of the restaurant's plan. "What a great thing, to have a connection to something a succinct as wings, beer, sports," he said. "It's a great positioning and a great canvas in the food and beverage space to play with."

-By CNBC's Tom Rotunno; Follow him on Twitter @TomRotunno

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com.

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