By Gregory Furgala
Any number of catastrophes can upend a new business. Given their high failure rate, restaurants seem vulnerable to even small obstacles. Rising rents, property damage and even just a poorly-timed off-service can tank even the most promising projects. Conversely, sometimes everything just seems to work out. David Deane, president of Wing’n It, has seen both sides of that coin while building his restaurant chain up from a single franchise into a business with 16 locations in three provinces. Luckily, though, he’s seen more of the latter. “I don’t want to say we were lucky,” say Deane, “but there was a lot of luck involved.”
Deane’s life as a restaurant owner goes back nearly two decades to his 20s, when, in 2000, after working as a manager at a Shoeless Joe’s, a sports-themed restaurant, he was brought in as an operating partner at another Shoeless Joe’s franchise in Maple, Ontario, just north of Toronto. Removed from the restaurant-saturated downtown core, the franchise prospered, prompting Deane to open a Wild Wing — another sports-themed restaurant — further north in Innisfil. With two successful restaurants under his belt, Deane had the opportunity to take on a corporate role at Wild Wing, but declined. He already knew he wanted to strike out on his own.
“The market there was crazy. Every restaurant was busy. There was a lineup everywhere you went.”
Some of the pieces were already in place. Deane had already met his business partner, Glen McFarlane, in Innisfil, and together they had the makings of a plan. They were going to open up their own shop downtown — not in Toronto, though. At the time, Deane reckons that Ontario had around 90 Wild Wing restaurants, plus a long list of others, including Shoeless Joe’s, Sticky Fingers and St. Louis Bar & Grill. Ontario didn’t need another wing shop, so in 2010, Deane and McFarlane picked St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The world may have still been reeling from the collapse of the U.S. housing market in 2008, but in 2010, the local St. John’s economy was booming. “I really believe the timing was part of it,” says Deane. “The market there was crazy. Every restaurant was busy. There was a lineup everywhere you went. We happened to get lucky and found this place in downtown St. John’s.”
That buzzing first location was almost a non-starter. Deane was in Ontario when they were looking for that all-important first shop, and after arranging to view a location in St. John’s, he decided to drive there, a trip that took him three days (“I had no idea there was a seven-hour ferry ride and a nine-hour drive once off the ferry”). After his long trek, Deane was told the place had been sold already. “When I got there, I called this gentleman, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s gone. You’re too late. I gave it away.’ So I had made the trek to Newfoundland, and now we don’t even have a business or a property.” Despite the poor start, Deane found what would become Wing’n It’s first location in the Bates Hill neighbourhood in downtown St. John’s. “We kind of lucked into the space,” says Deane. It was the perfect spot to sell chicken wings — at least until they lost their chicken supplier.
“It was a major blow,” says Deane. “No question about it.”
Two weeks after opening, Deane’s chicken supplier decided to back out. He was committed to cooking from fresh — fresh chicken was meant to set the brand apart — and was successfully navigating the problem of getting a different number of birds per five kilogram box. “It was a major blow,” says Deane. “No question about it.” A quick deal struck with Reuven International proved beneficial though, with Deane relenting on fresh and opting for frozen fresh. It proved to be an enduring call: Wing’n It ended up using them across the various franchises for years, its expansion across Newfoundland and into Nova Scotia fuelled by Reuven chicken.
Wing’n It thrived in St. John’s, and the young restaurant grabbed its piece of the city’s flourishing restaurant scene — and then some. Barely past the chicken crisis, Deane’s first prospective franchisee walked through the door. “When we opened in St. John’s, someone asked if it was a franchise, and I was like, ‘Yeah, this is franchise,'” says Deane. He wasn’t lying; Wing’n It was a franchise at that point, albeit with one location and no larger agreement. “It was always the plan. We never had a franchise agreement done up per se, but when we went there to open, the plan was to franchise. It happened a bit quicker than we had anticipated.”
“He asked, ‘Are you still interested in doing this?’ And we said, ‘For sure we are!'”
Without advertising, Wing’n It blew up from there, with franchisees setting up shop in small and medium-sized markets throughout the Newfoundland (their first franchisee now owns three restaurants). Even more than Deane’s Shoeless Joe’s in Maple or or Wild Wing in Innisfil, Wing’n It has since become the big fish in several small ponds. “They just kept coming from there,” says Deane, referring to the first franchise (or second, depending on how you count). “The idea was to enter all the small markets across Newfoundland. It really is a great hub. As you go down [the Trans-Canada Highway], there’s Gander, and Grand Falls, Windsor, Clarenville, Corner Brook, and they’re all great hubs and small towns and small communities. Most of them don’t have the big franchises.”
Like a prospector, Deane headed west to help open the first Wing’n It in Grand Prairie, Alberta. His first attempt in 2014 fell flat — the price of oil was still at more than $100 per barrel and vacancy was low. Deane and his prospective franchisee, a property developer and Newfoundland expat, dropped the project. Two years later, though, the price of oil had plummeted, and Deane got another call from his would-be partner. He was working on a new building, and the cost of rent had dropped with the price of oil: was Deane still interested in Grand Prairie? “The market changed. Oil dropped, prices dropped, rents dropped, and he called me back again, and he asked, ‘Are you still interested in doing this?’ And we said, ‘For sure we are!'”
Deane has repeated the success he enjoyed in Newfoundland and Alberta with new locations in Sylvan Lake and Lloydminster, a development he at least partially attributes to the preponderance of Newfoundlanders in Alberta (his first Grand Prairie franchisee being a case in point). He’s also working with an exportable model, though. Like wheat or canola, small towns lacking big restaurant franchises is another abundant resource in Canada. Follow the Trans-Canada eastward across the Alberta, Wing’n Its could pop up in every town between Canmore and Medicine Hat. Go further, and they could become the go-to restaurant in Swift Current and Moose Jaw — Deane says he’d love to get into Saskatchewan. Back west, Revelstoke and Salmon Arm could fit.
There’s no shortage of potential locations. For Deane, there’s even a bit of luck — but he’s still keeping his fingers crossed.