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Here's how Tampa Bay-based Winghouse is looking to stand out among 'waitress only' restaurants

Ken Jones, CEO of WingHouse chain owner Third Lake Capital, says the new flagship restaurant that opened in October across from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, shown here, has been posting the highest-grossing sales in the company’s history.
Ken Jones, CEO of WingHouse chain owner Third Lake Capital, says the new flagship restaurant that opened in October across from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, shown here, has been posting the highest-grossing sales in the company’s history.
Published Dec. 27, 2016

Jan. 9 is going to be a busy day for the new WingHouse Bar & Grill in Tampa, which faces Raymond James Stadium.

The owners anticipate that the NCAA College Football Playoff National Championship game, which will be played at Ray Jay, will likely be the biggest moneymaking day in the restaurant's short history. The Tampa Bay-based chain's new flagship restaurant at Dale Mabry Highway and W Columbus Drive opened quietly in October after the old Miami Subs building was demolished. The new Tampa WingHouse has become the busiest and most profitable in the recently revamped beer-and-wings restaurant chain.

"This restaurant has the highest-grossing sales in the company's history," said Ken Jones, CEO of Third Lake Capital, the investment firm that owns the WingHouse chain. "We want to build on the image we've created here and expand the brand where it makes sense."

NFL player-turned-restaurant owner Crawford Ker sold his chain of 24 restaurants to Third Lake Capital, which is owned by the family of Ashley Furniture founder Ron Wanek, in 2014. Since the new ownership came in, WingHouse has undergone some quiet but significant changes, Jones said.

The Tampa Bay Times got a tour of the new two-story restaurant in Tampa and talked to Jones to learn more.

WingHouse is a brand where people know what they're going to get when they come in here. Waitresses, beer and wings. Why change that?

We wanted to bring WingHouse into the 21st century. It was time to make the decor inside the restaurants feel more modern. You'll notice that the bar top is granite. We have hooks under every bar seat for women to hang their purses. We added new TVs but not too many that it feels overwhelming. We have a 9-foot television screen on one wall that you can see from every seat in the restaurant. We have an upstairs outdoor patio with a great view looking into Raymond James Stadium.

And we've expanded WingHouse to be about more sports than just football, ultimate fighting and wrestling. We'll still show MMA and WWE matches, but you'll notice the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning, USF Bulls and Tampa Bay Storm games playing and their jerseys on the wall, too.

The menu has been updated, too. There's not too much stuff on it any more so it doesn't feel overwhelming. But we do have new items like tacos and others. Our menu will always be about what sports fans want, so you won't see tuna sashimi on here, but there's some new items I think fans will like.

Why was Third Lake Capital interested in owning WingHouse Bar & Grill in the first place?

The Waneks are a very private family. They own hotels, real estate and a variety of other things. But Ron Wanek likes WingHouse, and said one day that he wanted to buy it. We started to talk to Ker about it in 2012 but didn't work out the right deal until 2014.

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We're obviously not the only brand in the "waitress only" category. But the goal is to grow the business and make it stand out from the others that are. We're hoping to do that by building upon the friendly service we're already known for and being a staple in the sports communities we serve.

How will WingHouse stand out compared to many other chains who are trying to grab sports fans attention with beer and food?

We're looking at new technology that will bring touchable screens to customers' tables hopefully sometime next year. We want the restaurant to feel more family friendly, so kids will be able to play games on the screen, customers can request the waitress to come to their table and they can order food on it.

It's about giving the customer more power. This is the 2.0 version of WingHouse. We'll unroll the decor changes we put in the new Tampa restaurant at new ones we open in the future. The Tampa store will be our pilot store where we test new menu items and guest experiences.

Is WingHouse opening a lot of new stores?

When we bought the chain, there were 24 stores. All of them are in Florida. We have 28 stores now. We opened our first store in Miami recently and another one is opening on International Drive in Orlando. We'll open another in the Fort Lauderdale area in the first quarter of next year. We're also on the Party Deck in Amalie Arena. We're looking for a place in Riverview, too. We recently closed a restaurant in Sarasota. That store opened just after we bought the chain, and it was in the works before. It just wasn't the right spot for our brand. We want to grow, but we don't want to grow too quick. So we're taking our time to find real estate that works for us.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com. Follow @SunBizGriffin.