Super Boss: Sally Smith CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings

Minnesota’s highest-paid female CEO gears up for her company’s biggest day of the year

Sally Smith joined Buffalo Wild Wings in 1994 and became the Twin Cities-based restaurant chain’s president and CEO in 1996. Between then and now, the sports-fan’s favorite wings-and-suds joint has grown from 35 locations to more than 1,000 internationally. With Super Bowl XLIX approaching, Smith’s team looks to beat last year’s mark of selling some 9.1 million chicken wings on game day. 

“The first Buffalo Wild Wings was in Columbus, Ohio. When I came in as chief financial officer, it was going to be part time—my job was to straighten out the financials and to raise money. The company really had no infrastructure. They didn’t even have an HR department.”

“I got calls the first couple of weeks—“Can we get our toaster repaired?”—because [employees] didn’t know if we had enough cash. It’s amazing how the company has grown with people who have been with us for a long time. Our head of international operations started out as a server in West St. Paul when he was in college. We’re a very large chain now, but it still feels like a small family company.”

“There isn’t an average day for me, and that’s the good news. I’m not thinking about the restaurants today; I’m thinking about how to be ready for a year from now.”

“What’s amazing is that food gets to the table in any restaurant, not just ours. There are so many moving parts for it to happen, including inventory and estimating sales so we don’t run out [of wings]. Balance that against a snowstorm, for instance, or a busload of kids on the way home from a sporting event that you weren’t anticipating—this industry is a game of pennies, and we have very low profit margins.”

“There’s a hypothetical example I always use to explain the business: Let’s say we have 1,000 restaurants and $100,000 profit or loss moves the company’s earnings per stock share by a penny—which is a pretty big deal. That comes out to about $10 an hour every day per restaurant, which can mean a burned burger, or a free beer or two. And of course it also works the other way if you’re a little more efficient. The restaurant business really is that granular.”

“I don’t drop in unannounced [to individual BWWs]—that really isn’t my role. I want to meet the team and talk to them about how it’s going—the facility, the hiring. I’m not trying to catch them doing something wrong, I’m not Undercover Boss. And we’re many people’s first job. We’re training America’s workforce—high-school and college students learning about a job, how to interact with guests, and how you recover when you have an off day.”

“Super Bowl Sunday is one of our biggest days, along with the March Madness kickoff. Some regulars even call a couple of weeks ahead if they want a carryout order ready to pick up right before the game. It showcases what we do really well—the volume is great, but more importantly it’s that feeling and the spirit of working toward something all season. We have team members who want to work that day, because of that adrenaline rush.”