Quaker Steak and Lube ( @TheOfficialQSL), for those not from Pittsburgh, is a restaurant known far and wide for their amazingly awesome wings. With more than 21 sauces that range from the tasty (ranch) to the ridiculously hot (Atomic), they’ve earned their reputation as “Best Wings USA”. The restaurant has even been featured on Man vs. Food, where the host ate the Atomic wings in its Pittsburgh episode (see link here).
Most recently, Quaker Steak and Lube added the Triple Atomic wing to its menu, a sauce that is more than three times hotter than its regular Atomic sauce (hence the name). How is this determined? The Scoville scale, which is widely accepted as the scale by which peppers are judged. To provide some context, the Triple Atomic wing is at the same level (5,000,000 Scoville Heat Units) as law enforcement-grade pepper spray.
A cousin was visiting from Philly and expressed some interest in tackling the Triple Atomic wings. He’s had a painfully hot Man vs. Food find before and decided that he would regret not achieving a second. Not only was it interesting to watch him eat the chicken wings of pain, but it turned out to be a great lesson in experiential marketing. Here’s how:
When you first order ’em, the waitstaff gives instructions and tells you all of the things they have to (your arms can blister?) “as required by law”. I’m absolutely sure that they’re trained to believe that there is some legal risk in selling these wings without some warning. In addition, the person eating the wings is required to sign a waiver. Reading reviews of other restaurants with similarly hot wings (many of which also require patrons to sign a waiver) seemed to indicate that the waiver was simply a publicity stunt. I don’t know for sure, but my hunch is that it’s more for hype.
The six wings come in an egg carton presented by an employee dressed in a mock hazmat suit complete with a hood and blinking head lamp. Not only does it ratchet up the stress, it also alerts nearly everyone in the restaurant to the fact that you’re going to be giving ’em a shot. The waitstaff then runs down the dangers/suggestions once again. A few glasses of water come to your table, then you’re on your own.
Eating the Wings
Everyone seems to be staring and a few are cheering on. There’s a lot of eye-watering and sweating involved. My cousin gave a GREAT play-by-play. In short, they hurt really, really bad.
My uncle taught me that every achievement should come with a trophy and these wings are no different. Polishing off the six Triple Atomic wings (without getting up to go to the restroom or any other cheating) nets a nicely-designed black t-shirt and a special place on the Atomic Wall of Fame. As insignificant as it might seem, it seems to be a satisfying conclusion to a painful process.
So, why is this great marketing? Because it creates a story for all participants. For those daring enough to take on the gastronomic challenge, it’s an experience that is told and retold, which helps to build a ton of brand equity at no cost. This has a direct impact on the bottom line by way of both top-line revenue growth and marketing expenditures — our server mentioned unprompted that the owners spend very little on advertising and the restaurant is still full almost every night. It even got the place on a popular food show, which is essentially a free commercial for the restaurant. This is a great example of how customer experience, storytelling and myths can build strong brand equity at negligible cost compared to more traditional interruption marketing channels.