Lord of the wings: One night in Wingo’s

February 3, 2011

Chicken is my favorite meat. It’s comfort food, familiar and unpretentious, and it’s versatile, providing moist, savory substance to dishes from almost every culture. But for chicken enthusiasts, one of the meat’s most essential styles is also one of its simplest: a short, unbreaded section of the bird’s wing that is fried and basted in sauce, sometimes called a buffalo wing or hot wing if the sauce is spicy.

In Georgetown, one restaurant has been nearly synonymous with that meal for just over a decade—Wingo’s.

Hoping to gain some insights about the inner workings of my favorite Georgetown chicken carry-out joint, I spent last Sunday night hanging out at the store on O Street, talking to the cooks and delivery guys, and trying to get a feel for what, exactly, goes into each batch of succulent, sauce-drenched wings.

When I arrived around 8 p.m., founder and owner Mike Arthur, a genial, avuncular Michigan native with a deep sportscaster’s voice and a chef’s build, was more than happy to show me around. Unshaven and clad in a beanie and sweatpants, Arthur looks more like he’s at home than at work, and has a jovial, easy rapport with his customers and employees.

“I love what I do,” he said. “This is my food. It’s what I grew up with. I have a passion for it.”

In Jan. 2001, he rented the space on O Street—formerly a Greek diner with a few seats by the window—and converted almost the entire floor space into a food preparation area, leaving only a nook in front of the door for customers to order and pick up their food. This seatless arrangement is now a rarity in the District; D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs no longer issues licenses for strictly carry-out and delivery establishments.

Arthur invited me back behind the counter to introduce me to the staff. The inside of the store is even more cramped than the tiny ordering area by the door, so I stood next to Arthur in the only unoccupied space I could find, right behind the drink cooler.

“Being small [in terms of square footage] is an advantage and a disadvantage,” he tells me. “The advantage is, everything’s fresh. The food I get today, I have to use today. Everything is constantly rotated in and sold out.”

Because people like eating wings while they watch football, Sunday is the busiest night of the week at Wingo’s, so the grill, fryer, and prep stations were all operating at full capacity. Since there’s no room to walk anywhere, the cooks operate on a “turn and pass” system, conveying styrofoam boxes with orders scrawled on them up and down the line until they’re ready to be bagged and sent off for delivery or pick-up.

Not wanting to disrupt the carefully synchronized workflow, I tried to insert myself into the production chain by taking boxes that Arthur has written orders on and passing them to Inca, a quiet, glasses-wearing twenty-something who is in charge of assembling sandwiches. If the order was for wings, Inca passed it down to the fryer, where a cook prepares the famous chicken, after which it is sauced and packaged for delivery. Arthur could have just as easily handed him the orders himself, but I’m grateful to be included.

When I noted that the process looked like a factory assembly line, Arthur nodded. “It’s all about efficiency,” he said.

For an old-school take-out joint, Wingo’s boasts a surprisingly sophisticated computerized order-processing system. When orders come in from the Wingo’s website and from Campusfood, a machine automatically prints out an order form, which Arthur sends down the cooking line for preparation.

When the orders are ready to go, the system groups orders with similar destinations together to optimize his drivers’ loads. He can even track how long each of his drivers are taking on their delivery runs. On Sunday, the average was 27 minutes—not bad, considering drivers typically take three or four orders with them on a trip.
It might seem like overkill, but Arthur said that constantly upgrading his system is vital. In the past few years, he said, people have been eating less at restaurants, and the number of competitors has increased, forcing him to constantly seek ways to improve.

“Things have changed,” Arthur said. “Years ago, it wasn’t about quality, it was just about how fast it was. If a customer was unhappy, you didn’t care, because there was a line with four more people waiting to replace him. Now, there’s no one to replace you if you’re unhappy. Everything has to be better now.”

I had already taken up a lot of Arthur’s time, and orders were still streaming in, so I asked to go on a delivery run with one of the drivers. He gave me a soft drink from the cooler and took me outside to introduce me to Marcus Douglas, who’s about to deliver three orders around American University.

Douglas is in his early 40s, a reserved but amiable former retail store manager who has worked as a driver at Wingo’s for about a year. As we headed up Wisconsin Avenue in his white Toyota, he showed me his system for keeping track of which order goes where, how each customer is paying, and how much his tips are.

My presence in the passenger seat—covered with newspaper to prevent grease and sauce stains—forced the chicken into the back, which made it tougher for him to read the receipts that tell him the customer’s name, phone number, and address. I put myself in charge of keeping track of the three bags.

As we meandered through narrow side streets in Glover Park en route to our first delivery, we both gushed about how delicious Arthur’s wings are.

“I’ve known Mike since he opened,” Douglas said. “I’m a customer as well as an employee.”

After Douglas dropped off the first order at a squat townhouse on Beecher Street, we headed to the Avalon at Foxhall, a gigantic apartment building next to American’s campus, where our next two orders were going.
The building is home to a lot of Wingo’s customers—as we pull in, we see another Wingo’s driver leaving—and Douglas chatted cordially with the security guard while we sign in.

When we got to the apartment door, Douglas handed me the first order, a personal order of wings for someone named Michael, and said I can try my hand at delivery.

Excited, I rang the doorbell and recalled Arthur’s parting advice about delivery before Douglas and I had driven off: “Try to smile.” I envisioned myself greeting Michael warmly and shaking his hand, perhaps even bonding with him about his preferred flavor of chicken wings or some other shared interest.

In the long minute before he answered the door, I shifted my feet anxiously, worrying irrationally that we’ve come to the wrong address. When he finally opened the door to his nearly-dark apartment, bleary-eyed and sporting gym shorts, I was taken aback, feeling awkward for apparently having woken him up from what seems to have been a deep and comfortable sleep.

A few horrible seconds went by, with me having almost forgotten about the chicken and him still barely conscious. We locked eyes for much longer than strangers ever should.

The friendly, professional opening that I had planned now totally blown, I finally managed to proffer the bag of chicken and stammer, “Uh, delivery for Michael?”

He muttered something quietly, grabbed the food, and quickly shut the door.

I was a little embarrassed at having butchered my first-ever delivery, but Douglas offered some encouragement. He’s had worse encounters with customers.

“Sometimes you have issues on the weekend,” he said. “People get inebriated, they order, and then just pass out.”

It didn’t seem likely that Michael had blacked out alone and ordered teriyaki wings for himself at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, but I appreciated Douglas’s encouragement. Still, he kept the next order—for Priscilla on the 12th floor—to himself. I was actually relieved; after my artless attempt at delivery, I’d rather watch him do it.
When we reached the apartment door, he initiated with exactly the kind of warm exuberance that I had failed to display.

“Hi, Priscilla!” he began enthusiastically. But before he could get any further, she took the bag of chicken and closed the door silently.

Douglas was unfazed. I was just relieved that his delivery hadn’t gone much better than mine had.

Of course, the year or so that he’s spent at Wingo’s has given him a lot of opportunities to perfect his doorway interactions. On the way back, Douglas said he averages around 20 deliveries per day. On busy days, he puts the figure around 40. I told him that sounds like a whole lot of driving, but he said he doesn’t mind.

“This car is my office,” he said. “OK, you’re stuck in a car, but I like it because of the freedom. I get a lot of time to myself to think and concentrate.”

Things were still hectic at the store when we got back, so Arthur sent us out again with two orders to Georgetown dorms—New South and Harbin.

Douglas estimates that around 75 percent of his deliveries are to college students, mostly at Georgetown but also at George Washington and American, so he knows the campus well. We made the first delivery at New South—boneless barbeque wings to a muscular freshman named Kevin who seemed confused that his order is being delivered by two people—before heading to deliver an order for Rachel in Harbin.

Since she had to pause and sign a receipt—she was paying with a GOCard—Rachel was the first customer to be anything more than standoffish or hostile. She chats politely with Douglas as she signed, and tipped him $3 in cash.

“I don’t ask for tips,” he said on the way back to the car. “I used to. If things are going slow and you have to put gas in your car, there are ways to ask. But I grew out of it. What’s going to come will come.”

Things had slowed down a bit at the restaurant by the time we get back, so Arthur offered me an order of wings on the house. I decided to take the mambo sauce—Douglas’s favorite—and sit down with Arthur on the bench outside the store.

It was a quiet night, and the block was mostly deserted except for us. I recalled what Arthur had been saying earlier about a decrease in customers across the board for restaurants since the recession.

Arthur pointed out the three unoccupied buildings visible from the bench, one of which he said has been vacant for eight years. In the past decade, landowners have raised rents so high that many small businesses—“mom and pop places,” as he put it—have been forced out, giving way to franchise chains and vacant storefronts. M Street remains vibrant, but here, just a few blocks north up Wisconsin Avenue, the only other open business in sight is a fully illuminated but empty Chinese carry-out, Kitchen No. 1, across the street.

“Georgetown used to be so much more popular than it is now. Look at this, we’re two miles from the White House, and it looks like a ghost town,” Arthur said. “It’s a picturesque community, but if you go to Foggy Bottom or U Street, it’s lively over there.”

But the store’s relative isolation has had a hidden benefit. While other late-night establishments that cater to drunk students have faced opposition from local groups like the Advisory Neighborhood Commission—last year’s shutdown of the popular Philadelphia Pizza on Potomac Street is the most famous example—being a few extra blocks away from typical party spots has let him avoid crowds of raucous students.

“It’s close, but it’s still really far [from M Street bars],” he said. “It’s actually a blessing. When you’re drunk, you just want to go home and call for delivery.”

As the surrounding area has gotten less vibrant, the business has come to rely more on delivery. Of last year’s business, 86 percent was delivery, he told me.

“If we didn’t do delivery, we’d have closed years ago,” he says. “We have to come to where the business is.”

Though he’s thankful that his business’s reliance on students hasn’t caused him many problems with neighborhood groups, Arthur clearly enjoys getting to hang out with the students who frequent his restaurant.

“People forget that Georgetown is a college town,” he said. “We really rely on the students, both from Georgetown and George Washington. Without the kids, we wouldn’t be here.”

Just after the 2008 presidential election, a high school student from nearby Duke Ellington School of the Arts decided to paint the mural of presidents sitting on a bench under the store’s window to commemorate Barack Obama’s victory. Also pictured are fictional Mad Magazine mascot Alfred E. Newman and Arthur himself.
It’s goofy and unique, but it symbolizes the quality that separates Arthur and his business from the national chains that are increasingly common in the area: a personal connection between customer and restaurateur.

“The customers make it all worthwhile,” he said. “I like the kids. Maybe I never grew up.”

The storefront bears other signifiers of Arthur’s connection to his customers. In order to placate impatient and noisy young children, and to help their parents calm them down, Arthur began giving kids plastic bead necklaces to toss into the branches of the tree outside the restaurant. Hundreds of them now hang there; Arthur says sometimes kids come by just to throw a necklace.

Though personal touches like the mural and the beads have certainly contributed to Arthur’s success, as I licked the last of the mambo sauce off of my fingers, it occured to me that perhaps more important than customer service or a streamlined ordering and delivery system is the fact that the wings Arthur serves are incredibly tasty.

As Arthur went back inside to begin closing down the shop for the night, I realized that I still didn’t know exactly what makes the wings so good. I was assured, however, that I’ll be able to enjoy the gloriously messy goodness of a personal order of Wingo’s with spicy fries for a long time.

“I love the community,” Arthur said before sending me off. “Without the students, I wouldn’t be here, and a lot of other places wouldn’t be here … We all love it. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”

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Michael Bruns

Wingos used to be a Wednesday night staple in the voice office. I take credit for his transition from fast back to tasty – if you talk to Mike again ask him about a letter he received on Marsh Letterhead.

Jack MacAnrahan

I like how you’re talking about Wingo’s like it’s some hidden gem that just opened. Have you ever actually left the front gates? Sounds like a freshman who lives at leo’s.