Antonio Swad started Wingstop, struck again with Pizza Patron
Photos by Dennis Clark
Fifty years ago, chicken wings were considered the least desirable part of the chicken. The saucy, fried wings that have become the ubiquitous bar food of sports fans everywhere may have been invented in 1964 at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, but Wingstop’s founder, Antonio Swad, contends he was the first to make wings-as-the-center-of-the plate a profitable business. “It was a fresh idea and it’s still the best restaurant concept ever invented,” he says. Consider this: It’s fairly simple to operate; per-square-foot sales are high; wings lend themselves to group dining; they’re easy to package for to-go orders; and they’re difficult to replicate at home. Not every home cook has messy deep fryers at the ready.
Except for Swad.
Andrew Gamm, who is now executive vice president for Swad’s first concept, Pizza Patrón, remembers Swad inviting him to his house to talk about branding his new brainchild, Wingstop. Swad was using the profits from his four-unit pizza chain catering to the Latino market to fund this second concept. Gamm arrived to find Swad surrounded by deep fryers, frying and saucing wings in his living room.
“At the time he only wanted to do carry-out, (but) I talked him into dine-in,” Gamm said. “He’s driven by keeping the business simple, but it’s difficult to be big if you only have a lobby.”
In the early days, Swad quips, he gauged how Wingstop’s business was going by his car’s gas gauge. If there was at least a half tank, there was no need to panic. “He had his pizza stores running like a watch,” Gamm said, which enabled him to turn his full attention to Wingstop. Swad grew the wings chain to 90-plus units before selling it in 2003 to Gemini Investors, who sold it to Roark Capital in 2010.
The 59-year-old Swad is an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur, Gamm says. He started Pizza Patrón 30 years ago with a specific market in mind. With his machismo looks, Swad could easily pass for Latino, but he’s of Italian and Lebanese descent. Even more ironic is he could never score a free pizza during his chain’s “free pizza when you order in Spanish” promotion. He doesn’t speak Spanish, even though his wife is Mexican (this wife he likes) and the majority of employees at headquarters are Latino. “I have a system worked out (at home),” he says. “Whenever I hear English, I know they’re speaking to me.”
Becoming the patrón (or boss)
Swad is the son of a truck driver and a waitress. He remembers going with his father to a construction site and watching him “tong the bricks,” sweating profusely as he made endless trips back and forth to unload his heavy cargo. His mother’s job was physical as well. “My mom came home smelling of smoke,” he says. “I’d wake up and help her sort her change; that’s how I knew she was home.” Now 94, she worked as a banquet server until she was 70.
“I started washing dishes at 15,” he says. “I never went to school.” His mentor was the boss who hired him at Ponderosa and taught him to use all his senses when running a restaurant. “He listened to every noise, and never sat down until he was counting the (register) drawer at the end of the night,” Swad says.
Although wing eaters tend to idolize sports heroes, Swad draws inspiration from a different celebrity base.
“The restaurant industry big shots are my heroes, not quarterbacks—(Wendy’s) Dave Thomas, (Edgar Waldo ‘Billy’) Ingram of White Castle. That’s why it’s so hard to see ads making fun of Colonel Sanders,” he says, getting angry at the idea of Saturday Night Live comedians imitating a fast-food icon in a kitschy way. “He pioneered our industry.”
Swad inherited his parents’ ability to handle hard work, but unlike them, his ride has been a lot cushier. During the tour of headquarters in Dallas, photographer Dennis Clark and I peered down from the second floor to spot a garage with six expensive, souped-up, white sports cars, and a fire-engine red Jeep. The mileage of all the cars together wouldn’t add up to what the average commuter drives in six months. (He drives a black Honda Element or 20-year-old white pick-up truck.) “I grew up loving cars,” Swad says. “I taught myself to read with car magazines.”
In-house artists created the Mexican-themed murals at corporate headquarters.
The Jeep was a Christmas present for his wife two years ago. He shakes his head as if to say, “What was I thinking?” The convertible top had to be taken off manually. His wife, he readily admits, is not the rugged type. “Even her house slippers are high heels,” he explains. He traded in the Jeep for a Mustang with a one-touch convertible top. “She never asked me what happened to the Jeep,” he mused, adding with a mischievous grin that he could tell her it went to a farm—where, no doubt, it could find lots of abandoned dogs to ride in it.
White cars aren’t his only passion. Downstairs we ran into a wall supporting a number of white road bikes, all top of the line, lightweight and fast. Swad carves out time to ride his bike around the lake adjacent to his house to get into shape for the 100K bike races he competes in. Two top-of-the-line motorcycles were also housed in the room, along with a prototype of Swad’s newest concept (more on that later).
Swad most likely got good deals on all those wheels, because Gamm describes him as the toughest negotiator he’s seen. Gamm, who has known Swad for 30 years, first met him when he came into the sign shop where Gamm was a graphic designer. “He scared everyone when he walked in the door,” Gamm says, laughing. “He’d negotiate on everything (even $5 items).” This was a business with set prices. “When they saw him coming, employees ran and hid,” he says, adding, “He’s lightened up a little.”
Those tough negotiation skills work well for franchisees when it comes to food costs. “He looks at it like it’s his children’s piggybank money,” Gamm says.
Both Swad and Gamm describe Pizza Patrón as “blue collar,” but they employ a high number of artists. “Art and business sometimes don’t ride in the same car, but they do here,” Swad says. The staff is lean, and they not only run the operations and franchise functions, but also a three-person, in-house ad agency. “We do a first-class advertising agency with one client,” he says proudly. “Every photo, every word written is in-house by my team.” Their talent extends off the computer and printed page onto the walls, where the vivid Mexican-themed murals elevate an average industrial-style office building to something colorful and memorable.
An idea room, plus glass windows separating offices, are used as brainstorming walls for “free exchange of ideas.” Employees learning someone else’s job or with dovetailing responsibilities sit at “partner-desks,” where they are privy to every conversation uttered in the room. Swad has his own office now—except for the three days a week his rescued German shepherd sleeps there—but at one time he shared a partner desk.
Swad practices visitation management. A common phrase employees hear is “What are you working on today?” says Controller Charlotte Hargrove, the only employee he was allowed to take with him when he sold Wingstop. He had worked hard to recruit her away from her own accounting agency, and finally convinced her to join him at Wingstop by telling her he needed someone he could trust with his money. “She was a hard dog to get under the porch,” he says, quoting an old Texas saying while Hargrove shakes her head and laughs.
He’s not a micromanager, Gamm says, adding, “He wants self-motivated people.” And everyone wears a lot of different hats, which may be why the patrón or boss in the logo sports a rakish fedora.
Swad, who has revamped the brand in numerous ways, including uncoupling with underperforming franchisees and spelling out operations in detailed manuals, is in the process of developing a modular building that can reduce build-out costs, plus speed up the development timeline. That’s a move he thinks will attract a different kind of investor.
Franchisees receive the boon of having all local marketing materials professionally produced in-house and paid for in their royalties. The marketing is edgy, playing off Spanish idioms. For instance, to deliver the message that their pizzas are big, they used the word “culona” which translates to “big butt,” at least in a politically correct magazine. Other provocative words or ideas are used as “cultural winks,” he says, slang terms only their core customer will understand.
His most controversial promotion was “Pizza for Pesos.” When he announced customers could pay in the Mexican currency, pesos, instead of dollars, “I got death threats,” he says. Rather than shift gears, he made it a permanent offer.
The very thing that makes a company a franchise—franchisees—can sometimes be a royalty pain. “I like to think ours are the best-cared for franchisees in the industry,” he says.
But it’s hard to know, he adds, because “you don’t get into franchising wanting to be thanked all the time.” At his franchisee convention around three years ago, he says he delivered the message: “I have the highest grossing stores and I’m tired of it. The next time we get together, some of you won’t be here.” And then he “reset the table.” “You can do that when you don’t carry debt,” he explains. Some nonperformers willingly left the system to become independents, others were escorted to the door without penalty. He says he told them, “If you don’t want to be on my planet, let me help you get on your planet.” While some were happy to be on their own, Swad says, they later called frustrated because their costs rose without his negotiated prices on commodities and there was no FedEx truck pulling up to their door delivering their ready-made marketing materials on a regular schedule.
Those who know him call Antonio Swad an “idea guy.”
Making more dough
As Swad buttons down Pizza Patrón, he’s investing his attention in a third concept—a take-and-bake kiosk for grocery stores called Raw Pizza Co. The product is designed for residential ovens, which aren’t always as hot as the temperature dial displays. This time Swad had a test kitchen at his office where he could experiment with different types of dough and toppings.
The manned kiosks are just 9’-by-9’ and the pizzas made on site can be customized. The chief reason grocery stores would be interested, he says, is because they’re selling a premium product, plus it gets customers inside the store where they inevitably will pick up other items as well.
He’s been learning the language of grocery stores so he can answer all their objections before grocers have a chance to utter them. “This will be a differentiator,” he says—like wings as entrées and pizza catering to Latinos.
“Antonio’s an idea guy,” says Gamm. “There’s not enough years in life for all his business ideas. He’s got a knack for finding something that’s missing in the marketplace.”