As of this weekend, the college football season and all of the Southeastern Conference action that comes with it will be a mere four weeks away. Wes Killingsworth knows just how crazy things will get.
Those small, finger foods known as chicken wings will start flying out the door, picking up speed as big games materialize among the Georgia Bulldogs, Auburn Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide and their respective opponents. The bigger the game, the blurrier the day will come.
But Killingsworth is fine with that. After all, the Columbus native and general manager of the Wingstop eatery and takeout hub on Weems Road has been through the gridiron wars nearly five years now. He and a couple of his staff know what to expect when seasonal football fans line up beside the outlet’s year-round loyal customers to grab a bag of chicken wings in one of more than a dozen flavors.
“You should see him on Super Bowl Sunday. We’ve got this place packed and dropping chicken as fast as we can, and tossing wings as fast as we can,” said Ed Miller, a Columbus businessman who opened Wingstop at 2528 Weems Road in 2012. Miller also owns the Bruster’s Real Ice Cream locations in Columbus. “Wes has got a loyal following here. He’s got people that every time they walk in the door, it’s ‘Hey Wes.’ I get more compliments on him than I think I’ve got on any manager who’s worked for me.”
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Killingsworth, 35, recently at the eatery that virtually is a second home to him. He discussed his job, how he will ramp up his staff’s efforts right around Labor Day as football kicks into high gear, and just what it takes to make a tasty chicken wing. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. First off, how long have you been here?
A. Almost five years now, since we opened. I started out as a regular cook.
Q. Did you know how to do wings before that?
A. I did. I had a similar experience with catering events and stuff like that before I came here.
Q. How did you get into the food industry and why do you find it interesting?
A. It’s something that I feel is always going to be here, so it’s safe to get into this. I was in electrical school before and decided not to do that. Then I went to Red Lobster and the Back Water Café in Harris County and Mellow Mushroom. So I’ve been doing it about 10 years now.
Q. So you like the food industry?
A. I do. There’s free food. (laughs). I like dealing with customers. I like customer service. I like to see the regulars come in and I get to know a lot of them on a personal level. I’m friends with a lot of them on Facebook now.
Q. Social media helps you keep up with customers?
A. It does. They let me know if something is wrong or if something was right. It’s almost an everyday thing. They share my posts on Facebook that helps me get things out. For example, National Chicken Wing Day, which is Saturday.
Q. The cooking itself, is it fun or a chore?
A. I like to cook. I like food in general.
Q. Will National Chicken Wing Day be busy?
A. It will. We’re giving away five free boneless wings with every purchase. It’s from 11 to 5. I think it will be busy because it is Saturday.
Q. Do you have seasoned staff to get things done?
A. We’ve got a couple of new people and I’ve got a couple of veterans back there. They do a really good job. They’ll be working Saturday and on the first day of college football, which is right around the corner.
Q. Do you do some of the hiring, and what do you look for in people?
A. I do all of the hiring. I look for smiling faces up front. I want people to be outgoing and not scared to talk to a customer. I look for a good personality.
Q. How about in the back?
A. The back is more of a fast pace. Everything is teamwork in the back. Everything is based on an airplane (Wing Stop’s theme). So we have a pilot, which is usually the manager or a shift lead that day. I have a wing man who tosses the wings, a gunner who does the fries and boneless (wings) and rolls, and then I have a bombardier that drops the chicken. And the cashiers up front are called navigators.
Q. Is Columbus a town that devours wings all the time, not just during football season?
A. We’ve gotten a lot busier over the last six, seven, nine months. Wingstop started a lot of commercials on TV and on YouTube, on Instagram and everything else. (Marketing) works.
Q. College football season is getting oh so close. How busy will it get?
A. That first week is going to be busy. We up-prep and increase our staff. On that first Saturday, it will be very busy. I’ll have all of my best people here. I’ll try to divide it up as much as I can and schedule on Georgia, Auburn and Alabama games to have my best staff here.
Q. How many wings will you make that first weekend?
A. It’s going to be a few thousand. That day people will order 100-piece family packs. We’ll probably do about 7,000 or 8,000 (on the average Super Bowl they sell about 12,000 wings).
Q. The bigger the game, the busier you guys get?
A. Oh, yeah. The Georgia-Auburn, the Alabama-Auburn, the Georgia-Florida game is pretty big. Your SEC championship is huge, and then your national championship game. I will have a college football schedule on that back wall for the whole SEC, so I’ll know who’s playing.
Q. You’ll be tossing one bowl of wings after another on those days?
A. We won’t stop. (laughs)
Q. Does the football blitz create any pressure?
A. I know what to expect. It’s a little different this year because we are up because of all the advertising and stuff. But I’ve been through it five times now, so it’s not that much of a pressure.
Q. Do you have to get the staff up for the games, similar to a general rallying his troops?
A. Yeah, I have to do that. There’s only two or three here that’s actually seen it that busy, so they know what to expect. But the rest of them don’t.
Q. How do you make sure everything goes flawlessly?
A. It’s the communication and the teamwork, all the way from as soon as they call out the wings to be dropped, to the fries coming up, and the chicken being tossed and put on a tray or in a bag. About 65 to 70 percent of our orders are to go.
Q. What does it take to make a good, tasty chicken wing?
A. The flavor’s got a lot to do with it. We have very unique, award-winning flavors. Our hot sauce is really good. I personally like the Louisiana rub; it’s a dry rub. It’s a lot of peoples’ favorite, both lemon pepper and Louisiana rub.
Q. How many flavors do you have?
A. Eleven, and then two secret flavors (plus a limited-time-only flavor).
Q. What’s the process for making the wings?
A. You cook the chicken for nine minutes until it reaches 200 degrees. Then you pull it up, put it in a bowl and toss it, box it, and send it out.
Q. Boneless versus bone-in, which is more popular?
A. Bone-in is far more popular than boneless. It is better to me, also.
Q. What’s the most challenging part of your job day in and day out?
A. That’s a good question. Getting everybody hyped up to work. Motivated. It’s not really a hard job. Dealing with scheduling conflicts is always fun, because no matter how much you don’t want to get into peoples’ personal lives, you always do. They’ve got school, and a bunch of different factors.
Q. What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
A. It’s the customers. In the five years I’ve been here, I’ve watched some of their kids growing up and they’re 5 now. I see them like once a week, so it’s almost as if I know them. That’s the fun part of it.
Q. Finally, what advice do you have for someone wanting to be a manager?
A. You’ve just got to work hard. That’s just it, and wait for your time.
Q. Is there a next career step for you?
A. I wouldn’t mind owning something one day. I don’t think I’m ready yet, but I would like to one day.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1999 graduate of Jordan High School; took some electrician courses at Columbus Technical College, but didn’t finish
Previous jobs: Has worked at Red Lobster, Mellow Mushroom and a cafe in Harris County that did some catering
Family: Single father of 8-year-old son, Caleb
Leisure time: He’s at the restaurant just about everyday, but when he’s not, he’s hanging out with his son, who likes to be involved with the Columbus GA Rocks art project