Juiciest Wings in the Universe: Get to Know Bar-Bill Tavern

When the Bar-Bill Tavern’s doors first opened in East Aurora, NY, 53 years ago, they didn’t even serve their world-famous chicken wings.

Those wings, which earned the 2020 Nightclub & Bar Award for Juiciest Wings in the Universe (yes, we swung hard for our first-ever food awards), came nearly two decades later.

In 1967, first owners Barb and Bill Korzelius—Barb, Bill, Bar-Bill, get it?—offered a small drink list and served only another Buffalo delicacy: Beef on Weck sandwiches. Former Bell Aerospace engineer Joe Giafaglione would purchase the tavern ten years after the Korzeliuses first established it, leaving behind the corporate world.

Giafaglione developed the elements that would transform the Bar-Bill into a destination and institution over the course of several years.

One of these elements is the mug club, implemented around 1978 or 1979: guests paid a small fee in return for a mug kept on a shelf behind the bar, emblazoned with their name and membership number. The club began with 20 members—there are now more than 4,000.

It’s the innovation Giafaglione made in 1983 that really began the Bar-Bill’s journey toward becoming an icon: he opened a kitchen and began working on chicken wings. His mechanical engineering background served him and the tavern very well—he took a methodical approach to testing and perfecting his cooking of always fresh, never frozen chicken wings and accompanying sauces.

The original location of the Bar-Bill Tavern exterior
The original Bar-Bill Tavern in East Aurora, NY, and its patio extension.

The Pressures of New Ownership

The menu expanded and the bar became increasingly popular over the course of the next few decades, earning accolades and topping “best-of” lists. After more thirty years operating the Bar-Bill and ushering it to greatness, Giafaglione retired.

He sold the legendary tavern to his niece Katie and her husband Clark Crook, so the business remains in the Giafaglione family. Katie Crook’s MBA in finance is an excellent asset, and their son John’s hospitality experience helped the Crooks transition into ownership roles.

That doesn’t mean things are simple, of course. When asked if he has ever felt pressure to meet the lofty expectations inherent to operating a legendary brand, he answered that he certainly has.

“Always. Always. So, that was the biggest concern that our community had when I first took it over. My messaging was owning the Bar-Bill is almost like owning a sports franchise,” Crook says. “It's a community asset and you're the steward of it. And so absolutely—people want to be able to experience what they always had.”

Like Giafaglione, Crook has an engineering background. He was in the IT business before taking becoming the third owner of the Bar-Bill. So, like Giafaglione, Crook had no prior hospitality industry experience. Fortunately, the previous operator’s precise, systematic approach to the culinary program meant Crook had access to detailed notes.

Bar-Bill Tavern Honey Butter BBQ chicken wings
Bar-Bill Tavern Honey Butter BBQ wings and an ice-cold beer.

“As Uncle Joe developed recipes and methods for cooking roast beef or chicken wings or what have you, he'd used the engineering process to keep refining his recipes and experience,” explains Crook. “So, he'd make a little change, he'd document it, make a little change, he'd document it, test, document again. And so, he created these processes that were just time tested and repeatable.”

Not only were those processes proven and repeatable, the operation was scalable. Over the course of the past nine years, the Crooks have scaled back the menu to focus on and refine what works best, develop the guest experience, act as responsible stewards of the brand, and expand operations.

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“If you follow the typical progress of companies, you've got that entrepreneur that's very control-oriented—that was Uncle Joe. We were the next scale of management, able to take what he created and blow it up. The final frontier would be the guys that take companies public and just blow the brand up even more,” says Crook. “So, that's kind of where we're at right now. We took a really great functioning process and tools and brand, and just blew it up, at least in our local market. So, from a numbers perspective what you know was a million-and-a-half-dollar company, is we'll do, between all of our locations, we'll probably do 10 million this year.”

The Bar-Bill Tavern's second location in Clarence, NY.

Expansion for Brand Growth

That reference to the Bar-Bill’s local market hints at the greatest opportunity the Crooks saw for growth. It’s not hyperbolic to say that the tavern is world-famous and enjoys an international following. The Bar-Bill is truly a global destination.

However, it’s located in a small town in upstate New York. East Aurora is 20 miles southeast of Buffalo and considered the “principal village” of Aurora. East Aurora has a population of just over 6,000—Aurora has a population of around 14,000. The Bar-Bill has certainly convinced people to travel to enjoy their food and experience, but it’s supported by a small community.

Bar-Bill Tavern Beef on Weck sandwich
The Bar-Bill Tavern's Beef on Weck, a regional favorite.

“You've got to be able to build a brand that's bigger than your community is and have a story to tell to attract people to come to you as a destination,” Crook says. “With this expansion to the north towns of Buffalo, that's actually where the people are. So, within five minutes of us, there's probably a couple hundred thousand people right now.”

The Crooks saw an opportunity for expansion, so they opened a second location at the beginning of this year. They’ve also added a dedicated takeout-only service and same-day overnight shipping in the United States to the business. Follow the directions, says Crook, and anyone who orders the flash-frozen Bar-Bill chicken wings and Beef on Weck will find that they taste like they’ve just come from the tavern’s kitchen.

In comparison, it’s the takeout service that concerns him more. What he has learned is an important lesson for any operator considering a dedicated takeout or delivery business. A person ordering takeout or delivery isn’t immersed in the brand’s experience. Putting their name in (the Bar-Bill doesn’t take reservations), waiting outside, stepping inside to wait, getting their seats, and finally getting their food—that’s all part of the experience. Patience is rewarded and waiting is expected, which is why an all-season patio expansion was added years ago. The new location is already experience hour-long wait times.

“We only use fresh wings. We cook them longer than anybody cooks them. We put the sauce on it by hand with a brush,” explains Crook. “We fan them out, five drums and five flats, into this beautiful presentation and serve them with the world's greatest homemade blue cheese and the greatest celery you ever had.”

The unique interior of the original Bar-Bill Tavern location
The unique interior of the original Bar-Bill Tavern location, complete with tin roof and stained-glass windows.

When a guest opts for takeout, they only experience the taste of the food, which degrades “every minute,” as Crook says, that they’re in the packaging. Still, offering more scratch food items (bleu cheese dressing, pizza dough and other items are housemade), opening a second location, offering takeout, and entering the shipping space are crucial to Bar-Bill’s growth.

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“It starts with just our business and my business philosophy, which is if you're not growing, you're dying. It's just a philosophy of life that Marv Levy, the old Bill's coach used to say: ‘When you start talking about retirement, you've already retired,’” explains Crook. “It's sort of a kind of a take on that, that you’ve always got to be looking to grow and expand, whether that's your own personal knowledge or as a human being. And companies are also organic and living organisms, as well, I feel.”

Expansion for Employee Retention

Crook also believes that growth is necessary if an operator is going to build a high-performance team and retain it for long-term growth. The approach is similar to the academic world’s “publish or perish” model.

“There's another component which is just plain good business, and that is if you're not growing, you're not providing opportunities for your good people. Your best people, especially if you want to be able to retain them, you need to be able to provide opportunities for them,” says Crook.

For the Crooks, retaining their team members means showing them that there are opportunities for career growth. Managers, for example, should be shown a path to general management. This practice is how talent is recruited and retained.

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It’s no small task to take over a legendary venue and brand and, to speak plainly, not screw it up. Anyone who buys an established, revered and world-famous bar or restaurant is immediately shoved onto a tightrope and asked to walk it perfectly.

The Crooks have walked that fine line, balancing a long-established legacy with innovations designed to take the Bar-Bill to the century mark of its incredible history.

On Tuesday, March 31 at 4:30 p.m., a ceremony will take place to honor our 2020 Nightclub & Bar Award winners. A number of award winners will be speaking at Nightclub & Bar Show 2020, including Jabin Troth of Licensed to Distill (Influencer of the Year), Eric Cacciatore of Restaurant Unstoppable (Industry Podcast of the Year), Derek Brown, owner of Columbia Room (Beverage Book & Authors of the Year), and Rebecca Monday, GM of VASO (Restaurant Bar of the Year). Register today!