Walla Walla’s wingman strikes
In military aviation, the term “wingman” refers to a strategic flying partner situated just off the wing of another aviator. The idea is to protect and defend the flying group of two or more jets.
The idea so resonated with restauranteur Brendon Mendoza of Walla Walla, WA that he named his eight-year-old family dining concept Wingman Birdz + Brewz.
“A wingman will take one for the team, and always has your back,” Mendoza says. “I’ve drilled this concept into my employees, because I want them to watch out for each other, to ‘protect each other’s six.’ It’s part of my vision in the way we fit into our community. But it’s also the spirit that inspires me in my life.”
Mendoza and his wife Lacey returned to his hometown after crisscrossing the country in pursuit of his hospitality dreams. But ultimately he decided that he was needed at home to help care for aging parents and a brother with Down syndrome.
“I felt I needed to jump all in” to help out, Mendoza says. So he moved with his wife, leaving a career that took him to southern California, Vegas, Denver and Austin. “I felt a loyalty to my family and to my hometown.”
In 2014 he opened the doors to Wingman Birdz + Brewz in a highly visible building that sits on Main Street, at the intersection of five streets. And through good times and challenges, he and his crew have been serving wings, burgers, craft beer and service to a bustling tourist, college and blue-collar town.
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Mendoza discusses the hospitality ride.
Boxerbrand: Why hospitality?
Mendoza: I started out as a busboy at a country club in 1994 and fell in love with hospitality. I worked my way up in that country club before moving on to community college and a hospitality management degree. My work has taken me to Southern California, Vegas, Denver and Austin.
Boxerbrand: How did the Wingman concept fit into Walla Walla?
Mendoza: It was the right idea for the community. Before Wingman Birdz + Brewz, there really wasn’t a family-friendly place with craft beer. So the concept fit perfectly with the needs of the community.
My parents own the building, so, when the previous tenant moved out, it presented the ideal location and opportunity for the concept.
We’re on Main Street in a town that has been recognized in national press as one of the friendliest in the country. In Walla Walla, people nod and wave hello, and we hold open doors out of courtesy.
We have a great, highly visible location in a 1904 building. We have a modern, industrial design, with a lot of metal and wood, and it’s very comfortable to watch one of our 11 TVs.
Boxerbrand: Who is your customer?
Mendoza: We’re popular with families, white collar workers from the local banks, shoppers, and we have a huge tourist and college population. We have three colleges in our area and over 100 wineries. We’re known for our wine, and for the past 25 years, the region has been considered to be among the best wine regions in the country.
That said, my vision was about introducing a kid-friendly restaurant with 22 taps of beer. Craft beer is something I’m very enthusiastic about curating and presenting to the public. We always have larger, sours, barrel-aged stouts, IPA and wheat beer. And we carry Coors Light and Blue Moon because our region loves them.
Boxerbrand: Tell me about your menu.
Mendoza: I started the vision with our chef Yara Irizarry. She did 10 years in the Navy before culinary school, and going on to chef at a steakhouse nearby. She’s been with me for eight years and has helped produce all our 20 in-house sauces for our wings, which range in heat levels, and our seasonings for our Angus beef burgers.
Boxerbrand: How do you remain optimistic?
Mendoza: No matter what, I know people still need to eat. And even in tough times, people will make sacrifice so they can eat out. I’ve built in incentive programs for customers, including a Flight Club that allows people to earn points toward their next meal, and we also give loyalty discounts. As challenging as it has been, between chicken shortages in the supply chain, which we dealt with, unfortunately, by raising some of our prices, to covid, we’ve learned to pivot. When covid hit, I was able to keep going with two managers and my chef. We designed an intricate takeout system and made very funny videos online. Some of our videos got national recognition. We did everything from takeout cocktails to videos of me, dressed up in my Mr. Walla Walla costume. That’s a funny story. But early on I was asked to compete for charity in a male beauty contest with my Dad body. I won Mr. Walla Walla Second Runner Up. I’m proud of that! I have my award framed and hanging in my restaurant.
Over the years, we’ve become a well established part of the community. There’s a customer loyalty, and we’re loyal to our customers. Our reviews and our customer retention reflect that. — Wingman Birdz + Brewz uses Boxerbrand menu covers in their table presentation. Thank you!