Just How Horrible is a Buffalo Wild Wings?

[The MOA Gator's. Now defunct.]
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the worst bar in modern Twin Cities' history was Gators at the Mall of America. Their combination of depressed people, mediocre food, garish ambiance, and a uniquely soul-rending location on the deserted Mall of America 4th floor set a lofty standard which few extant establishments can ever hope to reach. (The Shout House at Block E is the current worst bar in the Twin Cities, but many more things will have to go wrong to equal Gators metro area record.)

On the other hand, there is general agreement that the best bar in modern Twin Cities' history is Nye's Polonaise Room. Nye's laudable accomplishments are frequently discussed, and there is little need to repeat them here. It suffices to say that Nye's is the anti-Gators.

Most bars are somewhere in between. They contain happy and sad people, good and bad appetizers, decor to abhor and appreciate. Some places clash with their surroundings, others seem like they've always been there. A wide range of locale sits between Gators and Nye's, and exploring this vast ecosystem of libation is a life long journey.

[A bit from the facebook page.]
My curiosity was piqued earlier this year when a bar called Buffalo Wild Wings announced they would be remodeling a mediocre strip mall on Saint Paul's Snelling Avenue, opening up a bar there. Quickly, neighbors denounced the plan. Buffalo Wild Wings was a nightmare. Its yellow and black logo was inherently ugly. Its promise of drink, food, and sports would mesmerize young people, causing them to walk the streets at night. It would fail to be "family friendly." Allegations mounted like my aunt's horny Cocker Spaniel.

The whole thing intrigued me. The problem was that I'd never been to a Buffalo Wild Wings. I had no idea what the fuss was about. How bad could it be? I wondered. What is this suburban nightmare? How does it rank on the Gator's/Nye's spectrum?

So I laced up my boots, adopted my best jock attitude, and ventured forth to my nearest Buffalo Wild Wings (on the University of Minnesota campus) to research the matter for myself. Here is what I discovered...

[The UMN BWW.]
The first thing that happens when you enter a Buffalo Wild Wings? You are greeted at a counter by three young identically clothed bored chipper young people. Two girls and one guy. Some wear headsets. One girl will be twirling her ponytail around her finger like Sarah Jessica Parker in that Steve Martin movie (LA Story?), then she'll smile too widely and say "Wow, I love your jacket!"  These people seem to have nothing to do. Because of the headset, one might assume that they're "the brains" of the operation, but after talking to them, it seems unlikely.

Beyond the entrancing counter, a grand canyon of sports bardom opens up before you. It's a bit awe inspiring. The University of Minnesota's Buffalo Wild Wings is in an old fire house, and has tall ceilings and large walls roughly half covered in flat screen TVs. From my barstool, I can see twenty-nine televisions, none of them particularly small. I'm sure I'm missing a few.

The rest of the walls are bedecked in jerzee paraphernalia of different Gopher alumni: Flip Saunders, Neil Broten, Tony Dungy, Gary Steinbeck, others I haven't heard of.

The third thing you notice are the gender dynamics. This is a brotopia. Men rule here, and all the servers are women, gliding like bees in matching black and yellow jerzees with the number 84 on the back. (Why 84? That was the year Buffalo Wild Wings was founded, according to the cloying narrative on the plastic menu. You also learn that Buffalo Wild Wings was fittingly born in Ohio, our most average state.) The gender roles aren't just about the waitstaff, either. Here, with few exceptions, men stare intently, high-five each other, and use nicknames. Girls come to flutter eyelashes and are happy to be excluded in clusters. I've always disliked this aspect of sports. (E.g., despite the fact that seemingly 80% of the staff are women, I'd bet that every Buffalo Wild Wings "manager" is a guy.)

On the other hand, sports is the real saving grace of a Buffalo Wild Wings. Televised sports are inherently corporate, mass marketed, difficult to reconcile with a yearning for the authentic. In a way, Buffalo Wild Wings's pure devotion to sports makes it more honest than an Applebee's, which has to rely on vague notions of "neighborhood."

[The wild wings (actually honey BBQ)]
The food is fast, and slightly above average I suppose. Honestly, its difficult to screw up chicken wings. There are a million flavors, but the most popular is Honey Barbeque.

There's little left to say. If you like watching sports on TV and drinking beer, Buffalo Wild Wings is satisfying. You can watch eight different events at the same time: a golf tournament, a Premiere League match, two different baseball games, and hockey highlights. I'm sure that during a live event, a Vikings-Packers game or a Gopher playoff, this place is an electric zoo. Most of the time, it's relatively relaxing, better than some, good if you want to stay anonymous.

I suppose the key thing is that Buffalo Wild Wings is a "corporate bar." This place has the same relationship to the classic sports bars of the U of MN campus -- Sally's, Stub and Herbs, Big 10 -- that Starbucks has to a local coffee shop. It takes all the markers of authenticity and reproduces them according to a formula. I suppose it fools some, others are unconvinced. 

The new Saint Paul Buffalo Wild Wings is like a watered down version of Billy's on Grand (sadly, without the patio). I doubt it will be as obnoxious. It will likely be more boring.

Its a cliché to say so, but the line between unique local business and corporate franchise is more blurry than ever. (Though more fiercely guarded, for that reason.) Even a great local Saint Paul bar like the Groveland Tap is undermined by its reproductive owners (the "Blue Plate Group"). Lucés spread through the burbs. Blue Door Pubs split like amoeba to cover both sides of the river. Bulldogs reproduce. What is a chain any more? Does it still matter?

In the end, Buffalo Wild Wings. It ranks somewhere in the middle of the Nye's -- Gator's spectrum, about average with a strong taste of corporate schlock. It's much better than an Applebee's, about equal to a Chili's, and this central location will likely keep it from becoming exceedingly average.

[The schlocky "story" of Buffalo Wild Wings.]


Ed Kohler said...

For a different perspective on what a Buffalo Wild Wings can be, make a trip to . . . Chanhassen. That one is a sports bar surrounded by tables with kids and feels more like an old Shakey's Pizza. It's busy and loud.

I think that area of Snelling could use another dining establishment, and BWW can likely offer better food without the side of depressing e-pulltabs ambience found at O'Gara's down the street.

Personally, Buffalo Wild Wings is one of my go-to spots when stuck at a hotel in an exurb behind a WalMart. The food is better than TGI Chilibees, and they have free WiFi.

Julie K said...

I have a strong suspicion that if it were a Chipotle going in, the neighbors wouldn't have complained. Despite the fact that they also serve beer (not a bar, however), have higher volume turnover, and also use derivative restaurant design.

The way St. Paul regulations have been getting applied near neighborhoods, a corporate entity is the entity-type most likely to suffer the bullshit protests and odd parking/license requirements. They're a horror for a little guy.

Abed Nadier said...

I don't hate BWW but at the same time it's definitely not my favorite sports bar to hit up on game night. I recently moved to Alberta, does anyone know of a good sports bar near Calgary that would be worth checking out?

Anonymous said...

I just came across this. Full disclosure: I work for a Buffalo Wild Wings franchisee in a few cities. Only point I want to make is that we have both men and women at bar, serving, kitchen and management. There are several women GMs in our group, too. While there are a lot of guy patrons, there are also a lot of ladies. We welcome everyone :)

big bossman said...

i used to like the place in the early to mid 90's when they had 25 cent wings on tuesdays and could get beers on special for 1.50 for a 23 oz. glass. you got you food yourself when it was ready and didn't have to tip anyone.
nowadays though, they are just a corporate ripoff joint. a beer on special cost me 4.50 (bloomington ind. location) and wings are now about a buck each.
i seriously hate the place with a passion now and hope they all go out of business!!

Anonymous said...

Elitist douchebag.

Bill Lindeke said...


Nicole Nyarko said...

I will never go back to a BWW, especially the one in Edina. They ruined my meal b under cooking the meat and then completely forgetting to put the dry rub on the wings I ordered. I asked for a refund and they gave me a "VIP" experience to come back again. Really? I just told you your food f'en sucks and you want me to come back again? Horrible service. Horrible management. I will NOT be using that VIP at all. I hate that place and will make sure all my friends avoid it like the plague.