Wingin' it in the 'Boat

Specialty sauce company moves headquarters to city

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When Terry and Denise Brown realized their specialty food sauce company could be successful almost anywhere in the nation, they chose a small town with a healthy environment for children and legendary skiing. The decision to move Wing-Time's headquarters to Steamboat Springs had nothing to do with the close proximity of Buffalo Pass and Buffalo Park -- it was purely coincidental that Wing-Time's sauce transforms chicken wings into buffalo wings.

The Browns' 11-year-old company ships hundreds of gallons of piquant sauce across the lower 48 states each month. Most of it is destined to be slathered on chicken wings, They ship to retailers and restaurants, and they will ship their sauce to individual customers who are willing to invest in a case of 13 ounce bottles. They even list the U.S. Army commissary system among their customers.

More than a decade into it, Terry Brown hasn't lost his enthusiasm for authentic buffalo wings.

"I love this product," he said. "This is my passion."

The Browns moved their business here from California's Sacramento Valley in spring 2005. The sauce continues to be produced in Central California, but the business office and much of the order fulfillment is in the Browns' commercial condominium in the Copper Ridge Business Park.

Where the buffalo roam

To Routt County residents, it might appear that Northwest Colorado is a logical move for Wing-Time -- Isn't this where the buffalo used to roam?

The truth is, buffalo wings have nothing to do with North American bison. What has become one of America's favorite bar foods was born in a waterfront tavern in Buffalo, N.Y.

Buffalo Wings were created in 1964 in the Anchor Bar, operated by Frank and Theresa Bellissimo. It's a landmark in downtown Buffalo where Main Street ends at the Buffalo River. If the joint isn't on the national register of historic bars, it ought to be.

Picture a checkerboard floor of black and white tiles. The walls are hung with black and white publicity stills of Italian American singers who resemble Frank Sinatra or Vic Damone.

Buffalo wings have caught on in Steamboat Springs -- local restaurateur Gary Saxe said the Tap House goes through about two tons of wings a month. Tuesday is wing night at the restaurant on Lincoln Avenue, and people wait in line for tables.

Beginning of Wing-Time

Terry Brown went to high school and started his college years in Utica, N.Y., not far from Buffalo. On Friday nights, you could find Terry Brown and his buddies in neighborhood taverns working their way through mounded platters of spicy wings and pitchers of Rolling Rock.

Ultimately, Terry Brown transferred from the State University of New York-Fredonia in Utica to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He left his home state for the chance to study business and ski the kind of powder snow that can't be found anywhere in New York. However, the thing he missed most, and craved, was buffalo wings.

"I began experimenting with my own sauce and making 2 gallons at a time to give to friends," Terry Brown recalled. "I started doing huge wing parties. I would cook up 25 to 40 pounds of wings."

After graduating from the University of Utah with his business degree, Terry Brown spent eight years working as a financial analyst for a savings and loan in the San Francisco area. Terry Brown found he wasn't as passionate about the lending industry as he was about buffalo wings, and for years he worked on a business plan to support his dream of opening his own wing joint. At the same time, he was acquiring the practical business tools needed to succeed.

"Look at the skills I learned," he said. "I learned a lot about spreadsheets. The passion will only get you so far," in business.

Terry Brown realized he might find more opportunity and less competition if he started a business focused on creating a specialty wing sauce rather than opening a restaurant. He started very slowly in 1993 from his one-bedroom apartment in Davis, Calif. Multiple times a day, he drove his 1991 Mazda 323 hatchback to and from the UPS shipping center in Sacramento. The car was stuffed with bottles of wing sauce and packing materials.

Terry Brown, who was single at the time, stayed up late at night marketing Wing-Time to mom-and-pop restaurants and specialty retail shops. On weekends, he showed up at markets and gourmet food shops to conduct product demonstrations.

What's inside

From the beginning, Terry Brown was savvy enough to ensure the recipes for his six sauces would qualify them for natural food stores. The current lineup includes mild sauce with parmesan, medium sauce, hot sauce, sauce with garlic and parmesan, super hot sauce and Wing-Time barbecue sauce. In Terry Brown's mind, buffalo wing sauce does not contain sugar -- if it contains sugar or molasses, it must be barbecue sauce.

All six sauces start with a base cayenne pepper hot sauce customized at the food-processing plant Terry Brown contracts with in California. The first three ingredients in all of the sauces are cayenne peppers, vinegar and salt. Classic home recipes for buffalo wing sauces include butter. Terry Brown said he substitutes soybean oil, which offers the creamy consistency of butter. He bolsters the oil with natural butter flavor. The super hot wing sauce gets a measure of habanero peppers.

Niche marketing

Wing-Time is carried by Whole Foods Markets, including four on Colorado's Front Range. They're also in some unexpected places, such as Bass Pro Shops and Jackalope pottery in Parker. Locally, they are available at The Homesteader. He even takes product samples to boat shows because of the large numbers of consumers in attendance.

Steamboat consumers can expect to find Wing-Time in more local retailers now that he's taken delivery of labels reflecting the company's location in Steamboat.

Terry Brown considers himself to be a niche marketer. He's disciplined himself to build his brand by limiting his focus to his core business. Many people have approached him with ideas to branch out into other lines of specialty sauces, but he's devoted to his six core sauces.

Terry Brown said he has learned from experience that placing Wing-Time sauces in a variety of specialty stores cross pollinates other branches of the business. For example, he often hears from restaurant owners who receive the sauces as gifts from friends. That can lead to orders for pallets of 5-gallon buckets. One of his largest single-store customers is a restaurant in Houston that orders 60 gallons of wing sauce every month without fail.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Wing-Time's business is predicting demand for each of the six sauces and keeping enough in stock to meet growing customer needs. Terry Brown has to balance the cost of maintaining inventory with a three- to four-week lead time at the food plant to bring new orders to the warehouse. Terry Brown has $100,000 in inventory split between Steamboat and a warehouse in California. He retains a California warehouse to maintain lower shipping costs for his California clientele. Ironically, it's also cheaper to ship to Florida from California than from Colorado. However, Wing-Time, a daily UPS shipper, doesn't pay a premium to ship from Steamboat over what the cost would be from Denver, because Denver and Steamboat are in the same zone, he said. Wing-Time's move to Steamboat has reduced shipping costs to customers along the East Coast.

Buffalo-wing dream

Wing-Time is still a small company, and the Browns like the informality that comes with that -- Denise is able to watch 18-month-old daughter, Ellie, while processing orders and managing payables and receivables.

The three offices and warehouse are wired with a sound system that allows for individual tastes in music. Terry might be listening to the Grateful Dead, while recently hired Warehouse and Sales Manager Derrick Felt is grooving to Widespread Panic.

Despite the laid back atmosphere, Terry Brown's dream is to see a day when buffalo wing sauce is a staple in American pantries, just like ketchup and mustard. Steamboat residents can learn more about his passions for wing sauce, recipes for meals and appetizers that don't involve chicken wings and even order a gift pack at www.wingtime.com.

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