Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer

November 7, 2019

Wings Over the Competition: How Four Cornell Alumni Came to Own Their Favorite Food Spot

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Many great stories start with a favorite friend group spot — often a restaurant. Take the show Friends for example. Central Perk constitutes a core part of their lives as well as the epicenter of where they convene.

Right after college friends’ Dan Leyva ’14, Kevin Mok ’14, Raunak Nirmal ’14 and Mike Wang graduated from Cornell and moved to New York City, their dream was to bring their favorite Cornell restaurant into their adult lives and open a Wings Over branch in The City. After several events — restaurant closings and openings and franchise takeovers — they are now business partners and in charge of the entire Wings Over corporation.

“Part of the reason we had a car in college was so that we could go pick up wings at the old Wings Over Ithaca,” said Leyva.

In 2016, the four’s beloved Ithaca branch shut down. They were “devastated,” according to Leyva. Then, what started as a half-joking text about reopening the store turned to reality. In March of 2017, they reopened the Wings Over Ithaca store in its current Collegetown location.

“We have different backgrounds, so we wanted to make Wings Over better than what it was in the past,” Leyva said. “No one knew Wings Over Ithaca for having great service or as a place to go with your family.”

However, as franchisees they lacked the authority to implement the changes and features they desired in order to improve the business, so in October 2017, they acquired the whole company. Over the last two years, the group has done quite a bit with applying each of their Cornell educations to the chicken wing business.

Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer

Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer

They shifted their attention to two questions in the mindset of their customers: What does Wings Over mean to customers, and what do customers want out of the business? Hospitality, or guest experience, became the first priority.

“We went back to the drawing board and we decided that it was really important to connect with our guests,” Leyva said.

They rebranded. New logos, new colors, new app, new website, new uniforms and a whole new design. In doing so, they looked to their competitors and who their customers were.

The goal was to “foster a place that was compatible or welcoming” for all different guests and for all different occasions. They also found that their chicken wing competitors were catering to a masculine crowd and experience, which isn’t the most welcoming experience to families or everyone else.

“We wanted to do things that would naturally put a smile on people’s faces,” Leyva said, in response to questions about how they made their design decisions.

Their commitment to serving their customers extends even farther into their practice.

“We are continuously trying to find ways to engage and interact with the community because for us the community is really important. For example, we’re not just called Wings Over. We are called Wings Over Ithaca, or Wings Over Knoxville, or Wings Over Athens. We want to be a part of that community and really engage,” Leyva said.

This detail definitely sets Wings Over apart from other fast casual food vendors, as it allows them to establish themselves as a genuine part of their surrounding community. This goal proves to be reality by the ways they partner with Cornell on things like class projects, fundraisers or campus events, as well as through their commitment to consumer outreach and listening to what their guests want — asking wing-eaters what flavors they want, what should be changed — and then acting accordingly.

Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer

Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer

Even as Leyva currently oversees a chain of 40 wing franchises, he remembers his Hotelie roots and time at Cornell. He started working at restaurants at age 14, and upon entering Cornell worked his way up from the role of bell-man to the director of guest services at the Statler Hotel.

“That’s where I really learned a lot from paying attention to guests, really understanding social cues [and understanding] that we’re there to serve and it’s our pleasure to serve. We’re not just doing it because it’s our job,” Leyva said.

Academically speaking, Leyva recounts Hotel School prof. Stephani Robson’s introduction level class on regular development. This course teaches students about the small things that they didn’t likely consider, such as choosing the location of the trash, dining room or restrooms. Basically, the class is all about the flow of the restaurant.

“That’s really what sparked my interest in wanting to build new restaurants or try to make them better,” Leyva said. “Some of the courses you don’t think about are the computing classes or the communications classes that we had … all the classes in some way or another definitely helped with what we are doing today.”

One final, important piece of information about Leyva, as the chief wing officer of Wings Over, is his go-to wing order: The citrus chipotle or honey mustard-flavored wings — hot lemon pepper if he’s in the mood for more spicy — and a Powerade or soda. Regardless, you cannot go wrong with any of the flavors or services provided by this wings chain.

Hospitality involves serving customers by creating a memorable, positive experience. For Leyva and his business partners, what began as a simple quest to save their beloved Wings Over Ithaca has transformed into an entire hospitality-led journey. Their Cornell education taught them that success depends on more than just serving up good food; it demands a wholly pleasing guest experience — and that’s what they provide every day.

Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer

Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer

Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer

Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer