Food & Drink

How Wing Fest Became The World’s Largest Chicken Wing Festival

Chicken wings haven’t always been the foodie favorite they are today. Particularly in the UK.

As a child, in fact, Wing Fest founder Richard Thacker saw his chicken-farming family struggling to give them away for free.

“Only the Asian markets wanted them, so lots got exported,” says Thacker. “Having grown up with a father who was running and growing a business, however, I was on the lookout for ideas from a very early age.

“I had a lot of respect for my father and the humble chicken, so when he planted the seed of doing something with wings, it stuck straight away.”

Armed with roughly 15 years of chicken wing know-how and several trips to America in search of the secret to their stateside success, Thacker opened a small street food pop-up in London’s The Star by Hackney Downs.

“In 2013 taking over pub kitchens in the form of ‘pop ups’ had just begun evolving as a concept and it was a big learning curve,” he says.

For the first time, he was responsible for food margins, kitchen processes, equipment, food hygiene practices, preparing food en masse, and more.

“It was a vital step in understanding the hospitality industry and developing the concept, but also a relatively low barrier to entry in terms of financial risk—so a great starting point.”

By 2014, he was keen to make his own mark in London’s rapidly-expanding street food scene, so decided to expand by launching ‘Randy’s Wing Bar’ as a standalone concept.

“The ‘better burger’ category had become a thing, BBQ and pizza was evolving, and several other food types had really raised their game, but wings were definitely new to the scene,” he recalls.

Of course, ‘new’ comes with its own challenges. Gourmet chicken wings weren’t a concept or cuisine most people were aware of (or keen on trying, thanks to below-par fast food options), and their market share would be small until that changed.

“The idea of putting on a chicken wing festival, predominantly, initially, was just to help market my street food stall!” he admits.

And, despite becoming the world’s biggest chicken wing festival in the years since, it was a slow start.

“The concept of Wing Fest got people interested immediately but convincing them it could be a ‘thing’ and to get involved was a different story. In the first year, there was no pitch fee. I had to pay all the traders £100 [$130] to cover cost of their wings!”

Fortunately when The Orange Buffalo—another trailblazer of London’s wing scene—announced they would be participating, other street food traders and independent restaurants followed suit. Even if most only serve chicken wings as a side dish.

Only, it wouldn’t be much of a festival without customers, and they were proving hard to find.

“Getting this message out to the masses on zero marketing budget was the real challenge,” says Thacker. “I did my best to write a press release—as I’d read that was the thing to do—and sent it out to whoever I could.”

With the venue secured (albeit a car park of a restaurant in Dalston), 300 tickets to sell, and seven traders looking for an ROI on their time, the pressure on his one-man show was mounting.

“I ran a tight ship when it came to costs and budgets,” he admits. “P&Ls and forecasts apply no matter how small the business.”

Thacker took on most tasks himself to start, budgeting just £5000 ($6,530) of his own money to launch the festival.

And when foodie TV programme Sunday Brunch gave the event a shoutout a few weekends beforehand, it all paid off.

“The remaining tickets, which was most of them, sold out in seconds.”

Wing Fest was a roaring success and, having turned profit in its first year, something Thacker was keen to scale up quickly.

By year three, the ticket sale agreement meant the business had cash flow as soon as tickets went on sale, which covered all pre-event production costs.

Still, as demand grew, the jump from 300 (year one), to 1000 (year two), to 2000 (year three) people started exposing cracks in Thacker’s skill set.

“Once you start getting to that amount of people, it’s an entirely different level of event planning and, although not rocket science, if you don’t have the experience or resources things get missed,” he says.

Instead of looking for investment, Thacker chose to partner with experienced sport and festival producers Gorilla Events to fill the cracks.

“Without them, Wing Fest would not have been able to grow. Dan [Baxter, MD of Gorilla Events] and his team have the experience, skills and resources to accommodate the customer demand and ticket sale growth across multiple Wing Fest locations.”

After flinging wings to 10,000 festival-goers at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in year five, Wing Fest Manchester and Bristol followed, racking up a nationwide customer base of over 20,000 people by year eight.

“Selling and marketing Wing Fest is a full-time job, as is the production and planning,” says Thacker. “The build and break down of the events also require a large experienced team, as well as over a hundred staff on the event days themselves.

“I had access to none of these resources before, so the partnership also opened doors to larger venues and suppliers and how to work with them. Gorilla Events had long standing relationships with suppliers which aided cash flow and production costs.”

When Covid-19 struck the UK in 2020, however, neither party was protected. All events would have to be cancelled,

“That was a pretty heart-breaking moment,” he admits, “but we’re really fortunate that we have very supportive customers.”

When given the option, 50% of those who had already purchased tickets opted to roll their tickets over to 2021, and another 30% exchanged their ticket for a Swag Box so they could have a little slice of Wing Fest at home during lockdown.

“At the point of cancellation, we had already pulled the trigger on several costs that we were unable to recoup, so the business definitely took a hit in 2020/2021.”

And while the flagship event, London Wing Fest, had sold out over lockdown, regularly extended lockdowns meant he had no idea if and when it might be able to go ahead.

“After a very tense and nail-biting few weeks, it was eventually lifted five days before the event was due to take place. We were therefore one of the only large events to take place on the first weekend everyone came out of lockdown and people went wild! We were very lucky.”

Particularly because, thanks to the standard and level of production increasing so dramatically over the years, break-even points are much higher.

“It makes going into a new location a lot more risky,” he says. “Every time we launch in a new city, it’s essentially like launching a new business and has to be considered carefully. All the events get treated as standalone activities to make sure they are doing what they are meant to do, but you don’t get a second chance or the opportunity to open your doors and build traction like you do with a restaurant.”

This year Wing Fest will expand into its fourth and fifth UK locations, Birmingham, in collaboration with Digbeth Dining Club (incubators of many incredible food traders that have gone on to establish bricks and mortar sites), and Derby, in a bid to host smaller events in food-loving cities.

“Wing Fest has always been about putting all traders on a level playing field, and providing the opportunity for anyone to be recognised for the quality of their wings.”

Since its launch, those traders have been invited to compete in taste tests to have their chicken wing creations crowned Best Buffalo Wing or Best Wild Wing (with a People’s Choice Award and Judge’s Choice Award).

Subsequent Wing Fest winners have become so popular in their local areas they’ve often outgrown their street food trade. Traders such as Wingmans, Thunderbird and Chicken George, amongst others, have even gone on to open successful standalone restaurants.

“By 2019 demand for spaces was so high we had to start visiting as many of those that had applied as possible to sample their wings to see if they hit the standard before we invite them!” says Thacker.

“This has helped push the quality of wings in the UK go through the roof. They are no longer off-cuts but are now respected works of culinary art that showcase all sorts of styles, flavours and visually stunning concepts. I’ve eaten wings all over the world, in many major cities, but the London wing scene is by far the best in the world.”

In total, 45,000 people will be served wings from 80 different restaurants, street food traders, pop-ups and BBQ teams at this year’s Wing Fest events

“Hopefully the UK’s love of food and showcasing it in this way continues.

“Meat consumption as a whole is on the decrease, but chicken consumption is rapidly increasing, so hopefully this means there is a space for a few more Wing Fest in years to come!”


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