Rick Ross raps about Wingstop, music and being the boss
“Life is the biggest business you’ll ever get to manage,” says hip-hop star Rick Ross, who’s also building a large Wingstop operation.
The man with many nicknames, and many more tattoos, worked for years to make it in the music business. He’s putting the same effort into his Wingstop operation, with one motto inked on his chin: ‘Rich Forever.’
I have a bone to pick with hip-hop artist Rick Ross. I flew into Memphis last September with the sole purpose of meeting him—at 10 a.m.— at one of his nine Wingstop franchised restaurants. The night before the interview, his publicist calls from New York City to tell me he won’t be flying in until the afternoon. An email the next morning moves the time closer to 4 p.m. I call the photographer I’ve lined up, Trey Clark, a third time and wearily ask if he can still make it. He agrees to rearrange his schedule.
By 4:20, Clark and his assistant have set up the lights and they, along with the NYC publicist’s assistant and I, are trying not to keep checking our watches. We see a car and assume it’s the rapper, but it’s Audrey Boistol, Ross’s local franchise marketing manager, who rushes in with still another marketing person for Ross’s record label, Maybach Music Group. Product promotion posters for Luc Belaire rosé, a brand Ross also promotes, are set up and I begin to worry I’ve already lost control of the photo shoot and the star isn’t even here yet.
Ten minutes later, a shiny silver Infinity SUV backs into a space in front of the store and three large men get out, including one wearing a baseball hat with the word “f**king in big letters across the crown. It’s just one word in a political statement about black youth being scapegoats, but it’s jarring just the same. A moment later, Rick Ross steps out: A thinner Rick Ross than the one in the Google searches. He’s wearing a spotless white T-shirt and white trousers. His eyes are hidden under massive sunglasses he never takes off. He’s helped into a black brocade tux jacket. A tasteful amber pendant hangs around his neck and he has serious diamonds on a finger and both wrists—including a diamond-encrusted watch, displaying the wrong time.
He nods at me and I introduce myself. We shake hands and I lean in close and whisper in his ear, “I am so glad you’re not the one wearing the f**king hat.” He looks startled, then grins. “Never,” he says in a soft voice.
I relax. This is going to be fun.
Crossing the line
Rick Ross isn’t really Rick Ross. The artist with the X-rated lyrics that more often than not cross the line was born William Leonard Roberts II in 1976. He took the name of the notorious 1980s L.A. drug dealer Ricky Ross as his professional name because of the lifestyle it portrayed—selling drugs on the street, driving fancy cars and womanizing. In truth, Ross wasn’t a William, any more than John Wayne was a Marion. Even more telling is he spells his last name Ro$$. A tattoo nestled between his lower lip and well-designed facial hair reads “Rich Forever.”
“What’s rich to you? To me it’s being in a place of fulfillment,” says Rick Ross, owner of nine Wingstop restaurants open.
He’s tied at No. 20 on Forbes magazine’s Hip-Hop Cash Kings list, the richest hip-hop artists in the world, with an estimated $7 million in annual earnings. This is his sixth year on the list.
Ross plans to stay rich, which is why the blue tattoo, like the hundreds that cover his massive frame, tells his life story a picture, symbol or word at a time.
“What’s rich to you?” he asks rhetorically. “To me it’s being in a place of fulfillment. As a kid I always was a dreamer.”
His dreams were to make music and to own his own Wingstop. “I’m a natural-born chicken-wing man who comes from a long line of chicken-wing eaters,” he says. He was introduced to the brand while sitting in a barber’s chair, when “some dude walked in with lemon-pepper wings. I’d never seen lemon-pepper wings,” he says. He left the barbershop and went directly to the nearby Wingstop. After his first order, he says, he told himself, “Yo, (someday) I’m going to be blessed to be in a position to get one.”
Years later he didn’t get just one restaurant, he scored a development agreement for 25 in the Memphis area, as well as around Miami, one of the places he resides. Lemon-pepper is still his favorite flavor, but only “flats,” the actual wings, not drummies, he points out.
One of his young employees at the store told me earlier he likes the idea of bragging to his friends “his boss is The Boss.” The Boss is another of Ross’s nicknames for himself.
The best part of being a natural-born chicken-wing eater is that he has a steady stash. When he stops by his stores to check on them and motivate the workers, he always gets two 10-piece boxes of lemon pepper. “I’m Ten-Piece Shorty,” he says, calling himself by yet another nickname, “but really 12 to 13 (wings) satisfy…but nothing is worse than having to come back in for another 10, so I take two 10s.”
After the cover picture is shot, we sit down to talk over a tray of “flats” with several different sauces, including lemon pepper. He orders extra Ranch dressing, daring any of us to prefer blue cheese. I’m amazed he’s going to attempt to eat wings dressed in white. But he’s a careful, if enthusiastic, eater and his pristine white shirt stays that way.
He laughs when the spiciness of a dry-rub version I sample renders me speechless. “Get her a glass of water,” he calls out, and one instantly appears at my elbow. And he’s a gentleman. There are only three lemon-pepper wings on the tray and he insists I try one.
A glass of Luc Belaire rosé has been poured for both of us. He became involved with the brand, he explains, when he was at a club and noticed some women enjoying the pink bubbly. “I didn’t not want to enjoy anything,” he says, so he asked what they were drinking. He liked it and brought it into his inner circle. He gets calls all the time for endorsements, he says, but only accepts those he feels passionately about. “I love this product,” he says, picking up the glass. “My name is Ricky Rosé, connoisseur of fine spirits.”
He turned down a seven-figure deal from a cigarette company. “I don’t smoke”—he pauses here for several beats— “cigarettes,” he says, playfully.
But he does vape—the latest e-cigarette trend. “I’m a work in progress,” he admits.
Becoming Rick Ro$$
Ross may be under the radar for the general public, but he’s well known in the hip-hop community. He’s had back-to-back albums make it to No. 1 for rap, and has his own record label. Like the artist, the titles of songs and albums are colorful, for instance, the album, “God Forgives, I Don’t.” He often works Wingstop into his lyrics and never fails to mention his stores in interviews. He tweets to his more than 16,700 followers about Wingstop, among other topics, and posts about it on his Facebook page with 7.2 million-plus likes. (We thought we’d give you some examples of how he incorporates lemon-pepper and Wingstop in his lyrics, but had trouble finding examples that would make it past our censors.)
Part of being a rap star is having an entourage, a group of burly men who include bodyguards and, surprisingly, note takers. “I have too many ideas for one person. I need someone to jot down ideas,” Ross says. But it’s also a cocoon of protection both from the fans and for the fans. A rapper doesn’t dare show up alone, that’s for wallflowers.
His Wingstop entourage includes his sister and mother, plus his 16-year-old niece who works part time. Sibling Tawanda Roberts runs the day-to-day operations, including locating sites for their new stores. Roberts has a master’s degree in public administration and held numerous accounting jobs, including working for the IRS, before joining her brother’s company. “When he said he was going to buy a Wingstop, I said, ‘Oh, boy, here I go again,’” she says. In addition to managing his company, Boss Wings, she’s his manager on the music side, booking shows and making his travel arrangements. Their mother, a retired nurse practitioner, took on the role of consultant. Both her brother and her mother give good business advice, Roberts says.
Roberts admits she never thought her brother Will, as she calls him, would turn out to be a hip-hop star. When he told her as a kid that was his dream, she admits she laughed. “But he was determined to make it happen,” she says with pride.
Making it happen, however, wasn’t easy. He spent much of his youth not only listening to music, but also studying the infrastructure behind it. He’d check out where the records he bought were recorded and where they were pressed, details most wanna-be rappers wouldn’t be concerned with. When he saw the same names appearing over and over, he decided to follow that route—to make it the “Rick Ross way.” His record label, Maybach, records young artists, as well as well-known ones. And he approaches it as a team effort—one where everyone has to come to the table with talent.
The years of nobody knowing his name still take their toll. “I still reflect on those 10 years of no one noticing (me),” he says. “I became numb to failure, to rejection.” Not winning may not be the worst that can happen, but “if we lose doing what we love, we really lose. You have to put the work into it.” When he goes out to a club, he says, people may not know who he is when he enters, but they’re going to know who he is when he leaves.
Which is why his deal with Wingstop is not in name only. It’s his family business.
“I have too many ideas for one person. I need someone to jot down ideas,” says Rick Ross, indicating members of his entourage who take notes when he’s talking.
Ross may not have grown up on the mean streets he raps about, but he wouldn’t change anything—although “you do have to make adjustments,” he says. “Life is the biggest business you’ll ever get to manage.”
Ross isn’t the first celebrity to loan his name to the Dallas, Texas-based chain, owned by Roark Capital. Former Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Troy Aikman is an investor and paid spokesman for the brand. The difference, however, is that Aikman is not a franchisee and Ross is. Ross wasn’t hired to be an ambassador of the brand, Wingstop CEO and President Charlie Morrison says. But Ross’s celebrity status and unbridled enthusiasm for the brand associates his name with it just the same. He was interviewed by Forbes magazine during a recent visit to a New York City Wingstop owned by another franchisee.
A celebrity’s influence on a brand is hard to measure, but Morrison says they’ve seen spikes in sales when Ross puts something out on social media about visiting a store or waxes poetically about the wings. ”His 3 million followers will react to his mentions,” Morrison, says, adding, “We thrive in social media.” Ross’s influence was especially evident in the three-store New York market, which isn’t large enough to buy TV or radio ads. Ross was in town talking about his new album—his seventh—on several top radio stations and mentioned Wingstop. “The restaurant took off because of that,” Morrison says.
But there can be a down side, Morrison admits, especially when an unofficial spokesman is in the darker world of rap. Wingstop has 680 restaurants in 37 states and six countries. That’s a lot of independent business people to consider. It’s a chance you take, Morrison says. But there’s a safety net: Ross’s team is a good franchisee with a significant development agreement on the line also.
Wingstop is having a good run right now in a crowded field, although Morrison says they are different due to their small footprint and a significant portion of their business is take-out. They aren’t the wings-sports-bar model, which requires a hefty buy-in. “The kitchen is simple…it’s bone-in and boneless chicken, beer and soft drinks,” Morrison says.
The chain has maintained positive same-store sales for 10 years—yes, years—and comps were up 13.7 percent in 2013, Morrison says. Average unit volume is $1 million. The lemon-pepper wings may have brought Ross to the table, but the unit economics kept him there.
Morrison isn’t the only one who is a fan of what Ross is doing. The mayor of Memphis presented Ross with the keys to the city in appreciation of the jobs and opportunities he’s bringing to the city. Ross also has been working with St. Jude’s Hospital. “I was touched to see all those kids fighting for everything,” he says. He always planned that once he was in a position to help, he would, he says, and “not just profiting all the time.”
Charities, as does the music business, rely on visibility, something the large man whose tattooed body and vivid lyrics tell his story knows first-hand. “No one cares ‘til everyone cares,” he says.