May 10, 2021 at 11:06PM

Restaurants are finally recovering from the pandemic. The most recent wave of earnings reports shows consumers returning for on-site dining, and Mastercard data shows that restaurant spending is even surpassing pre-pandemic levels. It has been an especially good period for fast-casual restaurants, with consumers who are still feeling the economic impacts of the pandemic eager for budget-friendly restaurant options that are more upscale than the quick-service restaurant (QSR) experience.

Fast-casual chain Epic Wings has been taking advantage of this opportunity, expanding throughout the pandemic and most recently announcing a 39-unit franchise agreement that will open new locations in four major markets. With 24 existing locations, the restaurant plans to open 100 new units in the next few years. This expansion is facilitated by the chain’s streamlined operations, which Epic Wings President and Chief Operating Officer Rob Streett likens to In-N-Out’s model.

“We have a simple menu that allows for consistent execution of delivering high-quality food along with a great guest experience. [M]aintaining a tighter menu offering [a]llows for tighter operations,” Streett told PYMNTS in an interview. “…Many chains just keep adding menu items in an effort to offset sales losses or erosion in transaction count. At Epic Wings, our focus will always be on keeping it simple.”

Accordingly, the restaurant’s menu is limited to three kinds of wings, a handful of different sauces, two kinds of breadsticks and four possible side dishes.

Entering New Markets

These 39 new locations are set to open in Los Angeles County, Dallas, Houston and Las Vegas. Streett noted that with the chain’s success at its San Diego and Orange County locations, and with Los Angeles’ dense population, the LA metropolitan area is “just part of our natural progression as we move north in the state.”

Dallas and Houston, meanwhile, are significantly farther out from the chain’s current markets, Arizona and Southern California. However, Streett pointed out that these two cities are “two of the top five five fastest-growing metro areas in the U.S.,” adding that this makes them “extremely attractive entry points into the state of Texas.” Las Vegas, meanwhile, benefits from the “strong following in this market who are familiar with our California locations.”

The West Coast is central to Epic Wings’ identity, with the chain, which was formerly known as Wings N’ Things, describing itself as “the first to bring buffalo sings to the West Coast.”

The Continuing Impact of the Pandemic

In California, where all but one of Epic Wings’ stores are located, 45 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, which is significantly higher than the national total of 35 percent, giving the restaurant an early look into how it will progress into the post-pandemic future. Streett noted that progress is slow, saying, “The experience back to dine-in will be more of a trickle effect, versus just flipping a switch and hav[ing] everyone dining in again.”

Additionally, consumers will remain contagion-cautious for some time, with Streett explaining that it is “important for them to see that health, safety and sanitizing protocols continue to be in place.” As far as the effect this will have on menus, Streett “expect[s] single meals to dominate the purchase occasion versus the sharing of family meals.”

Indeed, recent data from the May edition of Delivering on Restaurant Rewards, a PYMNTS and Paytronix collaboration, indicates that 39 percent of consumers’ primary pandemic worries pertain to their health, and that these consumers are willing to pay more for features that make them feel safer. For instance, 44 percent of health-concerned consumers would pay more for online payment ability, 39 percent for fast lane in-store pickup and 37 percent for curbside pickup.

Off-Premise’s Impact on the Fast-Casual Experience

As contagion concerns linger, so do mid-pandemic ordering habits. Streett argued that successful restaurants design their food with deliverability in mind, creating menu items that “travel well.” Menu items that can maintain their quality over the delivery journey and those that easily reheat will have the advantage.

Additionally, he predicted that the continuing prevalence of off-premise ordering will impact not only menu design, but also restaurant design, as the need for large (and costly-to-maintain) dining areas diminish. “I think we will begin to see smaller restaurants that are designed to be more intimate and have more of a neighborhood feel,” Streett said.

Sure enough, PYMNTS data indicated that about three-quarters of consumers who have been ordering more by phone, website or restaurant app reported that they expect to maintain some or all of the changes they have made to their ordering behavior during the pandemic, as do four out of five consumers who have been using third-party restaurant aggregators. Additionally, industry leaders have noted that even as consumers return to restaurants, digital sales are holding relatively flat. As Streett put it: “Delivery and off-premise dining is here to stay.”

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