If you're hungry for a pandemic-proof restaurant concept, you're going to start by looking at pizza chains and other concepts with strong delivery games. With indoor dining still off the menu, you will eye chains with busy drive-through windows, and ideally not heavily dependent on breakfast traffic since morning commuters are still not coming around. 

You would draw up a short list, and my guess is that Wingstop (NASDAQ:WING) probably wouldn't be on it. Wingstop? That chicken wing place? The 1,500-unit concept doesn't deliver pizzas or feature drive-through lanes. However, you won't find a concept holding up better in terms of comps and overall growth. It was surprisingly well positioned heading into the pandemic, and now it's thriving from its unique model that's making franchisees, investors, and customers happy right now.

Three plates of Wingstop saucy chicken.

Image source: Wingstop.


Wingstop delivered a monster third quarter earlier this week. Systemwide sales soared 33% to $509.2 million. That's not Wingstop's revenue. It operates mostly as a franchising platform, and its piece of the action translates into a 29% top-line increase to just $64 million. The upside to the low revenue figure is that the margins are chunky when you're just sitting back collecting franchising fees from a red-hot concept. Net income soared 71% to $0.34 a share for the 13-week quarter ending in late September.

Wingstop has become an easy sell to potential franchisees. It had 43 net new openings for the fiscal third quarter to close out the period with 1,479 locations, but earlier this week its store count hit 1,500 outposts of saucy poulty goodness. Expansion is a key part of Wingstop's healthy growth, but it's not the biggest driver. Domestic same store sales soared 25.4% for the quarter, and that came following huge 32% pop in comps for its fiscal second quarter.

Now is probably a good time as any to delve into the secret to Wingstop's success. The concept is simple in theory with a limited menu, a few signature sauces, and a whole lot of fandom. Wingstop has come through with 16 consecutive fiscal years of positive comps, and it's a lock to stretch that winning streak to 17 years in 20202. 

Wingstop may be one of the few concepts outside of some pizza chains that delivered positive comps during the latter half of March. Its model -- with 80% of the sales as off-premise purchases, either takeout or delivery -- made it a natural in the current climate. It had a strong digital sales game before online sales became essential, with 40% of its business coming from its app or internet orders before the COVID-19 crisis. Now digital sales are up to 62% of the mix.

Wingstop's success is contagious. The numbers are magnetic to potential franchisees, explaining why it expects to grow by 135 to 140 restaurants this year. Just three months ago it was targeting 120 to 130 net new openings. 

There's even some love here for seekers of dividend income. The current 0.5% yield may not seem like a lot, but this week it declared a special $5-per-share payout. This will be the fourth time since going public in 2015 that Wingstop comes through with a large one-time distribution. The $15.55 a share in total dividends that it has delivered since 2016 is closing in on its IPO price of $19. Another special dividend next year should put it over the top. 

Wingstop's flying right now. It's just a matter of time before the market starts paying attention.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.