Bill Welter Creates Everybody's Favorite Place
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Bill Welter Creates Everybody's Favorite Place

Bill Welter's name may not be familiar, but one small phrase he created decades ago will place him for you immediately: "Where's the beef?"

Yes, Welter was executive vice president of marketing for Wendy's when that famous campaign made a star out of a little old lady named Clara Peller, and gave Wendy's a real boost in the marketplace.

Welter had worked for several agencies in Chicago after graduating from college, and spent much of his career working on franchised restaurant chains-most notably Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's as well as Wendy's. After Wendy's, he started and ran his own agency in Columbus, Ohio, for 18 years before moving to Las Vegas as part of an ill-fated venture with David Copperfield to open themed restaurants.

"He successfully made the investment disappear without ever opening a restaurant," Welter laughs. But Welter and his wife Pam had honeymooned in Vegas, liked the place, and stayed on. One problem: no Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants. Since the franchise had started in Columbus, Welter knew it, and really liked the wings.

"It was my favorite hangout," he says. So, with all his knowledge of the franchised food business, he decided to look into Buffalo Wild Wings. After doing his due diligence trip around the system, he started his second career at age 52. Welter bought the Las Vegas area, and committed to 10 stores. The first opened in December of 2000, and he has since opened four, with two more planned before the end of the year.

There were several aspects of Buffalo Wild Wings that appealed to him. First, he loved the wings, which he thought were the best he'd ever had. He also liked the fact that it was a "fun" place, with a niche between fast food and an Applebee's style restaurant.

Most important though, was the attitude of the employees.

"The employees were having fun. It's hard to have employees who have fun and make that part of the experience," Welter says. "Everybody tries to do that, but these folks were doing it. I felt the concept had legs because of the employees-and that comes even before customers."

Welter's success is largely built on his own approach to the business, and, above all, to the employees. "I think I have the happiest employees in the world. We have put our employees as our Number One goal. I want people to walk into town and ask where the best place is to work, and be told it's here." He's made some progress. When the first store was opening, the company had to run a lot of ads to get people to come to interviews. Now, all he has to do is put a sign in the store to get 50 to 60 responses.

So how do you make the employees happy?

Managers get a good competitive wage-a little more than everyone else pays, he says. Then they get bonuses based on the company's year-end financial performance, and Welter is happy to pay them: "The more bonus we pay, the better we are doing." Welter pays 100% of the managers' health insurance, and insists they take weekends off, and at least one three-day weekend a month.

Most importantly, he says, the managers have some real control over their stores. "We take the attitude that we are empowering them to make decisions at the store level for their guests and employees. We push as many decisions down as we can."

The managers contribute to ideas that increase earnings or decrease costs. Welter once noticed that sales in the stores seemed to pick up on Thursday afternoons around 3-4, and the managers explained that a lot of people liked to start the weekend early. That led to a promotion to "start your weekend on Thursday" that has been very successful. Each store has some special angle, he says-the North Vegas store, for example, is close to Ellis Air Force Base, home of the precision-flying Thunderbirds, who have adopted Buffalo Wild Wings as their official restaurant.

Although hourly workers are paid minimum wage, there are perks for them as well. Welter insists that managers treat employees well, because he himself worked in all the fast food clients when he was in the marketing business.

"Even at KFC and McDonald's I would work in the restaurants to get a feel for it. If I was going to portray a certain promise I wanted to make sure it would be delivered. I worked three weeks in a Buffalo Wild Wings to get a feel for it. All the great marketing is nothing compared to what happens in those four walls. I really try to treat our employees the way I wanted to be treated. I have worked in some where I saw the manager treated his employees poorly and I didn't want that to happen."

Welter seems to find a great idea everywhere he looks. And he's always looking for ways to reward employees. "We do surprises," he says. "We had a store that hit a real milestone: $10,000 gross revenues in one day for the first time. So I bought 300 gold Sacajawea dollars, and went into restaurant and gave everyone 10 of those."

But it wasn't just what he gave them, but how: "I put the money in their hand and said, 'thank you for doing a great job.' There's a lot of heft in those 10 coins. And half the employees said 'I didn't work last Friday,' and I said, 'It doesn't mater, you're part of the team.'"

It's a lot of little things, he says. When servers get very popular, with guests asking for them, Welter will order a sheet cake with the server's name on it and present it. "An $18 dollar sheet cake is like an $18,000 investment" in employee motivation. He gives all the employees a turkey at Thanksgiving, and the $20 cost per turkey is another investment with lots of mileage.

Each year, there's a special wearable designed for employees. There's a better one each year for the employee's anniversary, and they're very proud of having them.

"It's little things like that that matter," he says. "You just can't say you put the employee first unless you really do."

If you need a clever promotion, Welter is your guy. Take the one he created called "The Wall of Flame." The hottest sauce at Buffalo Wild Wings is called Blazin' and customers who order and eat 12 of those wings in six minutes are enrolled on the wall for, as Welter says, "the few, the proud, the insane." They get a tee shirt that says "I survived the Wall of Flame."

Customers loved it, and Welter wanted to extend it, so now when a customer orders that, the server comes out in a fireman's hat and coat, with a siren sounding on his or her shoulder. The hat and coat will belong to a local fire department, and the restaurant donates 25 cents from each order to that fire department.

And the employees who love to show off love to wear the coat and do that bit. "You always have several employees who want to be on stage, so they see this as a benefit," he says. It is Las Vegas, after all.

"I've had a lot of guests say, 'You've got something here, you ought to franchise it,'" Welter says with a laugh.

And running his own franchise has given Welter a new perspective that he recommends to all franchisees: "When I was executive vice president at Wendy's, I spent so much time wondering what the competition was doing. Now I spend none of my time being concerned about competition, because I know if I take care of my employees and pay attention to my local marketing, I don't care who comes in next to me, because the guests will try me and realize I'm better than the other guy. I never used to believe that, but I wish I had learned that earlier in my career."

For the moment, being local makes Welter happy, even though he might some day be tempted by a larger canvas.

"Every day I come to work, I get more excited. Absolutely the most satisfying thing to me is to wear a Buffalo Wild Wings shirt anywhere in this town, and people come up and say, "That's my favorite place.' That means more to me than anything."

Published: August 10th, 2004

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