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Wing Zone is first to discover Malabo


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The world is a dangerous place right now, which is one reason Wing Zone, a chicken-wing concept based in Atlanta, is taking a year off exploring new countries in order to concentrate on the birds in hand, according to Hair Parra, vice president of international development.

As practical as that sounds, Wing Zone is still mining unchartered territory in 2016 as they prepare to open their first unit in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.

The Central African country is not only new to Wing Zone, but it’s also new to franchising. “I’m 100 percent sure we’re the only American franchise here,” he said. The only other franchise he’s spotted is a Chinese copy of a KFC and the hotel he’s staying in, Ibis, which is a brand of Accor, a French franchise.

Malabo isn’t located on the mainland, but on Bioko, one of five inhabited islands  that are part of Equatorial Guinea. It’s located north of the mainland, across from Cameroon in the Gulf of Guinea.

The country gained its independence from Spain in 1968. One of the remnants of 190 years of being ruled by the Spaniards is that Spanish is widely spoken there—something that suits Parra, who was born in Venezuela, just fine.

While the list of why this is not the optimum spot to start franchising is long, there’s one factor that trumps most negatives: oil. Oil was discovered in the Gulf of Guinea a few years ago and that changed the country’s fortunes and created a middle class.

Parra admits that when you list the cons, it’s daunting. Prices are high right now, he said. A bottle of water costs $3 and a night at the Ibis Hotel, which in Colombia he paid $45, costs $155 in Malabo. Infrastructure is poor and the supply chain is nonexistent.

“There’s a lot of challenges here,” he said. “We have to bring everything here...because they don’t make anything here.”

All their chicken, sauces, etc. have to be imported, and, yes, that’s an expensive way to do it, Parra acknowledged. “People told me I was crazy,” Parra said about coming to Malabo, including his business partners.

The reason Parra did sign the contract is that he has a motivated franchisee who is the cousin of the president of the country and owns a shipping company and a few supermarkets.

“The franchisee wants the concept,” Parra said. “We said we’d give it a try but told them if it doesn’t go well, we’ll pull out.”

The franchisee had seen the concept in Atlanta and felt strongly that it would attract the new emerging middle class, as well as the ex-pats and Chinese who are flocking there.

A safe haven

Parra’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia made him feel unsafe in the world, he said, noting he was there when there were numerous reports of mass killings. But he does feel safe in Malabo.

To illustrate his point, he said, “People go to the bank with a day’s receipts” without armed guards. “They walk to the bank (with cash in their hands) and everyone sees it.” Please note, this is not a practice Parra condones, just relaying.

The first Wing Zone is scheduled to open in April. They’ll see how that one does before committing to more. But he likes not only being first in, but only one in.

“The government welcomes anyone who comes here,” Parra said. “They love American” brands.

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