NORTH TONAWANDA —
If you’re ever passing through North Carolina and develop a hankering for some hometown cooking, be sure to look up Kirk Weaver.
The Kenmore native, who’s lived in Charlotte, N.C., since 1978, has made a name for himself in parts of the Tar Heel State for the quality of his Western New York-inspired delicacies. Having introduced chicken wings, beef on weck and Genesee Cream Ale to Charlotte when he opened his first restaurant in 1980, Weaver has once again become “the Buffalo guy” with the inception of his latest eatery, Lebowski’s Neighborhood Grill, last year.
Weaver has thrived by offering a homemade touch to his wings in a region dominated by wing chains. He will offer some of his chicken creations at next weekend’s National Buffalo Wing Festival and will be one of at least two out-of-town entries with roots in the Buffalo-Niagara region.
A 1971 Kenmore West High School graduate, Weaver went South in 1978 when his company, Gold Bond, took its operations and about 350 employees to Charlotte. He quickly longed for a taste of home, though.
“When I got down here, it was a bit of a culture shock moving South and also being away from certain standards you’re used to,” said Weaver, who cited wings, fish fries and beef on weck. “I noticed pretty quick that the Charlotte fare didn’t include anything that we were used to.”
Follow-up research indicated that Charlotte residents had yet to see chicken wings in their home market, so Weaver opened a restaurant in 1980, Standing Room Only, that featured wings. Business was good enough for him to open up a second eatery, the Township Grill, seven years later.
“We got a really good push with our wings,” he said.
Around the same time, Buffalo natives Chris Tisack and Sally Mayhew noticed a similar shortage while they earned their wings at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Wanting to have a touch of home near them, they opened Wings to Go opposite the base in 1985, quickly exceeding demand as seaside crowds rushed to get a taste.
“They started with four or five Fry Daddys in a little shack,” said Russ Clarke, the wing chain’s director of marketing, from the corporation’s offices in Severna Park, Md.
Business expanded to five locations by 1988, with franchising ensuing a year later. Tisack and Mayhew sold the business in the early 1990s to corporate interests, which have since expanded the Wings to Go name to about 80 locations nationwide. But the Western New York taste hasn’t been lost.
“The sauce on the wings is the same original sauce that was originated at the beginning,” Clarke said.
Indeed, the rise in popularity of wings has altered the industry, Weaver said. His restaurant is one of few eateries that offer wings in Charlotte that aren’t corporate entities.
“Wings became international. They’re just ubiquitous,” he said. “In Buffalo, mom and pop (eateries) still prevail, while down here it’s chains. We have (Buffalo) Wild Wings, Wing Zone, Wing Stop. They get the biggest business here.”
The numbers seem to back up Weaver’s statements. Of the 21 participating restaurants listed on the festival website, 15 are from outside Western New York (and eight of those are franchises).
As Weaver and Clarke both noted, the actual wing doesn’t vary much from eatery to eatery, so the sauce is the real draw. Wings to Go won second place in last year’s “Creative Barbecue” category at the wing fest, and Clarke said the company will enter that category once again next weekend. Executives will also make sure to have enough of the company’s Golden Garlic Sauce this time.
“We were a little bit underprepared for the demand last year,” said Clarke, who said the sauce sold out well before the festival’s conclusion.
Weaver has also paid close attention to his sauce offerings, albeit reluctantly. He left the restaurant business to do private catering consulting for a decade before getting laid off from that job due to the poor economy. Wanting to get back in the game, he opened Lebowski’s with his daughters, Jessica Walbourne and Amelia Weaver, last year.
Lebowski’s will bring with it a Huli Huli sauce that is to be entered in the festival’s “Creative Spicy” category and a Carolina Gold Rush sauce, a mustard-based barbecue blend.
“I like mild, medium hot. I never really went into all the flavors. I was more of a purist,” Weaver said. “But the market kind of demands it a little bit.”
Another draw: Weaver’s cook is also a former Western New Yorker.
“We can say that we’ve got wings made by Buffalo guys here,” he said. “No one else can.”
In addition to offering Western New York food, Weaver’s eatery acts as a Bills Backers location during football season (meaning that all Bills games are shown there). He’s seen plenty of expats like himself over the years in Charlotte, most of whom wish they had the same chance he does to return, even if just for a couple days.
“We do have a lot of Buffalonians down here, but none of them will ever say that they don’t miss Buffalo,” he said.
IF YOU GO
• WHAT: National Buffalo Wing Festival
• WHERE: Coca-Cola Field, 275 Washington St., Buffalo
• WHEN: Noon to 9 p.m. Sept. 4, noon to 7 p.m. Sept. 5
• MORE INFORMATION: Call 565-4141 or visit buffalowing.com
• 1 p.m. — .5K “Running of the Chickens”
• 1:30 p.m. — Amateur creative sauce-off
• 2:30 p.m. — Amateur traditional sauce-off
• 3 p.m. — Media wing eating contest
• 4 p.m. — Yancey’s Fancy Cheesiest Couple semifinals
• 5 p.m. — Amateur wing eating championship
• 6 p.m. — Buffalo buffet competitive eating contest
• 7 p.m. — Buffalo blue cheese bowl
• 8 p.m. — Dennis George quiz master
• Noon — Lancaster Carnival Kids Steel Orchestra
• 1 p.m. — Miss Buffalo Wing Pageant
• 2 p.m. — Baby Wing competition
• 3 p.m. — Dennis George, quiz master
• 3:30 p.m. — United States chicken wing eating championship
• 4:30 p.m. — Yancey's Fancy Cheesiest Couple finals
• 5 p.m. — Ridiculously hot Buffalo wing eating contest
• 5:30 p.m. — Dennis George, quiz master