Restaurant chain Quaker Steak and Lube expects to serve its 1 billionth chicken wing today (Nov. 15). That milestone is particularly remarkable because, as company legend has it, the idea of selling chicken wings didn’t exactly take off right away.
Company founder Gary Meszaros decided to try serving chicken wings in the 1970s after visiting the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y. Meszaros saw an opportunity to add a new and interesting item to the menu, but his business partner, co-founder George "Jig" Warren, didn’t think anyone would eat them. Initially, Warren was correct.
"Undeterred as he usually is, Meszaros put one chicken wing on every plate that went out no matter what was ordered and people started to say that they never dreamt that chicken wings could be that good," said John Longstreet, CEO of Quaker Steak and Lube. "They literally, as I like to say, created the market for chicken wings."
"In my opinion, each consumer business needs to determine its unique selling proposition," Longstreet said."But when a business can be the best at something, particularly something that people really crave – like chicken wings- that’s the ultimate unique selling proposition."
That market has led Quaker Steak and Lube to great success. It developed a cult following of sorts in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, and began expanding in the late 1990s. The company, which is now a franchise, is set to open its 60th store in December. It plans to open another 12 stores in 2013.
Longstreet said he thinks that slow growth has been key to the company’s success.
"I don't know if the founders ever had a vision to become a big franchise company or even to grow initially, but they tinkered with things everyday to make them perfect," said Longstreet, who served as mayor of Plano, Texas, before joining the company as a member of an advisory board. "They wanted to be all things to all people, which most marketing people will tell you is impossible.”
In the face of that growth, the company continues to put an emphasis on staying true to its Sharon, Pa., roots.
Those roots emphasize authenticity in the company's auto-themed restaurants. After all, the original restaurant opened in a converted gas station purchased by the two founders upon returning from service in Vietnam. The name of the company is also a play on the Quaker State motor oil company, which is based in a town about an hour from the company headquarters. Keeping in line with that theme, all restaurants feature old cars and motorcycles mounted to the walls and ceilings. Not only are all those features crucial to the aesthetic appeal of the restaurant, but they are also important to the overall customer experience.
"One of the beauties of our brand is that we keep the co-founders involved and they actually report to me, which is interesting considering I worked for them when I was in high school," said Longstreet, who washed dishes in the original restaurant opened by Warren and Meszaros. "With every change we think about making, we walk through everything that got us to where we are today and ask is this going to negatively impact the brand in anyway. If that is the case we stop, re-evaluate and back off. This has kept this brand alive even in tough years."
That formula has proved to be a great success, but in the end the food is just as, if not more, important to the success of the company. The company has won more than 100 local, national and international awards for everything from their wings to their burgers, ribs and 21 sauces, or 'lubes.'
"The awards add credibility to the brand, especially since we are still a small brand," Longstreet said. "It makes people say they want to visit and also has helped to build a cult following. When they see that we won the festival favorite at Buffalo, the granddaddy of festivals for wings, two of the last three years and we won two other awards for two new sauces this year, they see that and they share a pride in the brand and it is important to maintain the cult following by fostering that."
The company sells 12 million pounds of chicken wings, or 80 million wings, each year and this year systemwide sales reached $160 million. Longstreet says emulating the success of Quaker Steak and Lube relies on one thing above all else.
"All companies need to stay true to their roots," Longstreet said. "It sounds simple, but if you look at almost any business that has gone south or by the wayside it is because they didn't stay true to their roots or they lost their way."