Dining A La King: Wings Etc. works with a winning formula

Some people use a formula to pick their NCAA basketball tournament brackets.

Posted on March 24, 2008 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on March 24, 2008 at 8:18 a.m.

Some people use a formula to pick their NCAA basketball tournament brackets.

I know of one person who did something based on the vowels in the team name.

Others use team colors, coin flips or their best guesses.

When it comes to getting people to spend money while they watch young men run around and try to put a round, inflated ball through a metal hoop, restaurants look for a winning formula.

The formula isn't a secret, but successfully using it is about as easy as a cinderella winning six games to become the national champion.

Thursday night, the new Wings Etc. location in Goshen was packed. The family dining side was full and so was the bar. The televisions all had basketball on. At least one of the female servers sported a shirt stating, "Size Does Matter" as she carried fried food and cold beer to the tables.

Guys working for Budweiser held their own hoop-shooting tournament. The winners got free shirts and hats.

Music from the digital jukebox was so loud you feel it in the furniture, and I was just grateful to at least recognize Johnny Cash among what was booming.

Jim Weaver started Wings Etc. in 1994 in Mishawaka. The restaurant combined sports -- or at least watching it -- with beer and chicken wings, served in big portions in an atmosphere where people could cut loose and have a little fun.

In 2004, three men -- Dennis Witte, Rob Hensmann and Eric Stuczyinski -- joined Weaver to franchise Wings and opened an Elkhart location at 105 C.R. 6 W. Using their experience with Quizno's, the trio turned Wings Etc. into a marketable restaurant.

In January, the Goshen location opened. Fifteen Wings Etc. locations are busy. Another 91 franchises are sold, Witte said on Friday.

The partners are looking at two possible locations in Dunlap to open another Wings Etc. Witte is hoping it could be open by the end of the year, though given the permits needed, I can't imagine one would get built that quickly.

Until then, the Wings Etc. location on the south side of Goshen will fly on the strength of those chicken wings and the restaurant's formula, which borrows from other successful restaurants including Hooters, Texas Roadhouse and Buffalo Wild Wings.

The menu is full of bar food, which means the deep fryers get a workout. The potatoes are fried a couple different ways. The appetizers include Mini Corn Dawgs ($4.99), while "aftertizers" are fried Brownie Bites, Cobbler Crisps or Banans Foster Bites (all $3.99 an order). Even the Dawgzilla, a half-pound hot dog, is available fried.

This is not a menu for a cardiac patient. But Wings Etc. is going after a younger market anyway. The bar the other night was full of 20-somethings, mostly guys, who not only didn't mind the booming bass competing with the televisions, but enjoyed it.

The menu has a few healthy options, but realistically the people showing up to watch a game and drink beer from a 100-ounce contraption that looks like a cross between a barber pole and a gumball machine aren't likely to order a lo-cal plate. By the way, Wings calls the contraption a Fuel Tanker.

This isn't fine dining, which is fine with the full house of basketball and wings fans.

"It's a fun, casual, very blue-collar environment," Witte said.

The portions are big, particularly at lunch when a $5.99 special gets you at least a half pound of a former farm animal or sea critter, whether it's in the form of wings, pulled pork, hamburger, whitefish fillet or tenderloin.

The bar food is decent. Not great. But decent.

Despite the "Size Does Matter" shirt, the wings aren't as big as those at Heinnie's or other restaurants, despite Wings Etc. calling them "jumbo."

The "upgrade" to boneless just means that bits of breaded chicken breast are fried and then doused in sauce, but I never minded eating off a bone. Wings aren't a major food group for me, but I enjoy them, particularly when someone else makes them, basketball is on and I don't have to mess with a remote.

The wing experts could argue over who has the best wings locally. I don't really know. Buffalo Wild Wings has more variety in its sauces, with Carribean and Asian flavors. Wings Etc. has six hot versions, including one called "Wall." Eating 16 wings with the fiery flavor, without the help of drink or other food, gets you a photo on the wall. It's a feat. Having had two of them, I realize it's not one I'll probably ever achieve.

Wings Etc. offers Pepsi drinks and 50 varieties of beer, but few options for those who want an alcoholic drink other than beer. I don't know what the tables of Amish young people I've seen there pick.

The service is, like the food, decent. Our food Thursday night didn't all come out at once and the wings were missing the bleu cheese dressing. At least once when the server stopped to ask if everything was O.K., she was gone before I could answer. But she stopped by often and was pleasant.

The atmosphere doesn't have smoke, but is filled with the noise of people enjoying themselves as they eat and drink.

Wings Etc. is a good fit for this area and will continue to do well. It's a growing restaurant chain that started here to serve people who live in this area.

That's really nothing to squawk at.

Quick Bites:

* I'm very excited that Mad Anthony Brewing Co. is planning a tap house and restaurant in Elkhart. Last January, I announced a campaign to bring one to either Elkhart or Goshen. Admittedly, I didn't do much other than hope and couldn't take an ounce of credit, but I'm happy nonetheless.

* Trent Mast is planning to take over Village Inn in Middlebury March 31. The longtime restaurant near the heart of downtown has been owned by Kevin Rhodes. Trent's parents owned and operated it prior to Rhodes.

* Congratulations to the team of students in the Elkhart Area Career Center's Culinary Arts program who finished first in the ProStart Invitational on March 6. The career center is the first school to win the championship three times. Students Adam Weber, Schuyler Parsons, Kana Livingston and Tara Brown prepared a meal that earned them the right to compete in the national competition in San Diego April 24-26.

* The President's Baked Item at this summer's fair will be caramel pecan cinnamon rolls. Each year, the president of the fair picks a baked item to judge the day before the fair opens. Elkhart County bakers prepare that year's item for competition. This year's competition will be at noon July 17. For more information, contact the Elkhart County Extension Office, 533-0554.

* Hacienda Mexican Restuarants won five Gold ADDY awards from the American Advertising Federation for excellence in print, broadcast and outdoor promotions. Hacienda's radio commericals won Best of Show. Fish Marketing created and produced the entries.

Contact Marshall V. King at mking@etruth.com.

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