In SE Asia, Wing Zone franchisee adapts to his advantage
Wing Zone fans in the Philippines share their sauce favorites.
In what Johnny Mayani calls the “YouTube era,” brands must be able to swiftly adapt to capture consumers’ attention and, if they’re successful, some of their spending as well. Nowhere is that more true than in Southeast Asia, says Mayani, where he’s the master franchisee for Wing Zone and where customers “aren’t necessarily attached to a brand, they’re attached to a lifestyle.”
“We live in a YouTube era and when things go viral everyone in Asia wants that and immediately pop-up stores come up,” he says from his office in Singapore. “That’s the new normal, and with Wing Zone we can adapt flavors more quickly.”
Mayani has even taken his adaptation a step further, creating limited online-only menus that can be executed from existing kitchens and offer items that are complementary to Wing Zone.
“We did a grilled cheese limited menu that was very successful,” he says, and another is in the works to appeal to diners looking for something a little healthier.
His strategy is also to incorporate these virtual menus into the package he offers franchisees under his JNM Dining Concepts, “so when we look at bringing Wing Zone to other Asian markets, we’re selling them on, buy one franchise and get access to a portfolio of virtual menus you can execute in your home country.”
“Virtual kitchens are the wave of the future,” Mayani continues. “We’re ahead of the curve when it comes to that” in Asia. In fact, when the sixth Wing Zone opens in Singapore it’ll do so within a new CloudKitchens facility, a delivery-only commercial kitchen space. That model could prove instrumental as Mayani looks to expand Wing Zone’s presence beyond Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, where it already has a combined 16 locations.
Johnny Mayani is capturing brand love for Wing Zone in Southeast Asia as founder of JNM Dining Concepts, the master franchisee.
“I see this as a growth opportunity for us, where we build the supply chain in the country and use virtual kitchens to build the brand next in, say Vietnam,” with the goal to then “build an appetite for franchisees,” he says.
Wing Zone is Mayani’s first franchise endeavor and thus far the only brand under JNM Dining, which he started in 2014 after leaving telecommunications company Brightstar. The flexibility he’s had to make adjustments to operations is a key reason Mayani selected Wing Zone, which is among the smaller brands in the category with fewer than 100 stores. “With a smaller brand it felt more like I would have a seat at the table,” he says, noting Hair Parra, Wing Zone’s COO and head of international development, has been a partner, “not just a franchisor.”
“Big brands, they tend to be more adamant about not making changes,” continues Mayani. “But there’s so many differences in each of the countries in southeast Asia and you have to adapt to each.”
That means three versions of flavored rice at halal-certified restaurants in Singapore, where most are also “micro stores” of just a few hundred square feet to mitigate high operating and real estate costs.
“We do a lot of carryout and delivery to make it work in what’s not necessarily prime real estate,” says Mayani, while in the Philippines locations are concentrated in major malls and serve wine and beer to young professionals who want more of an entertainment vibe. And in Malaysia the restaurants offer more seafood options to appeal to a larger Catholic population, particularly during Lent.
Parra, whop previously brought brands such as Domino’s and Papa John’s to new international markets, acknowledges the balance involved in allowing local adaptations while maintaining Wing Zone’s brand integrity. He says when entering a new market “we start with a base menu, then do a marketing analysis to see what we need to add.” Changes are allowed if they don’t add more equipment and “won’t do damage to the system and operations.” In addition to its restaurants in Asia, Wing Zone has franchises in Panama and Guatemala.
KFC is the largest American chicken brand competitor—“They’re in every city and country in Southeast Asia,” says Parra—but because KFC sells fried chicken in a fast-food format, Wing Zone aims to highlight its differences as a fast-casual concept. Instead of a large menu board as a focal point, which denotes fast food, Parra says putting menus on the counter helps shift the perception. Food is brought to the tables, which are set with cutlery, and employees clear the tables, a service that’s since translated back to Wing Zone’s U.S. restaurants.
Another U.S franchise, Wingstop, had about a dozen locations in the Philippines but in October 2018 ceased its operations there. Wingstop made “a conscious decision … to sever our relationship with our franchisee in the Philippines and exit the market” after four years, the company said in a third quarter earnings call last year.
“Their franchise partner in the Philippines had huge private equity backing and still couldn’t make it work,” notes Mayani. “That speaks volumes to our strategy and our ability to grow and our ability to adapt.”