How The Pluckers Founders Built Themselves a Wing-Dom

It’s 2 a.m. Saturday and the bars are closed. A group of rowdy students, home from their trek down Austin’s Sixth Street, bust into the Pluckers Wing Bar tucked in the center of West Campus. TV screen after TV screen are tuned into ESPN, flashing clips from the day’s football games, while spicy wing challengers immortalized in photos on the Wall of Flame peer down at the ensemble taking their seats.

“I’ll have the Holy Mac!” one guy tells the waiter.

“And I’ll do the five-wing combo—in spicy garlic Parmesan,” says another, before whipping out a glossy Pluckers Club gold card, letting everyone know: he’s been here before.

The diners are not much older than the UT students who opened this popular establishment were in 1995, when the original location used to stand just one block over. And the scene tonight—what has become a classic experience for most any UT undergrad—isn’t all that different from a night 23 years ago, when a craving for wings became too overwhelming to ignore.

It was 1991 when Mark Greenberg and Dave Paul were just a couple of freshmen fraternity brothers, making their way back home after a long night downtown. The pair was hungry for wings, but to their dismay, Austin at the time was severely lacking in wing joints. They spent the next three years of their college careers drawing up business plans, cooking in the Zeta Beta Tau kitchen, and trying out recipes on whoever was willing to eat. Paul, who used to work at a wing restaurant in Atlanta, had a rudimentary idea of what made for good sauce, so come junior year, he, Mark, and his younger brother, Sean Greenberg, put their creations to the test at the Silver Spurs’ annual Ultimate Chili Cook-Off.

“I can remember running around all day with tins of wings,” Sean recalls, sitting in a conference room with Mark and Paul in the Pluckers headquarters on Barton Springs Road. “People were going crazy for it. We knew we had a hit.”

From there, the three gathered their life savings, took small loans from friends, family, and the bank, and acquired a space on 23rd and Rio Grande. For nearly a year, they did construction, using their own tools, demoing the place themselves, installing sheet rock, painting walls, and laying flooring. “Every day after class, we’d go over to 23rd and Rio, put on a mask, and get to work,” Sean says.

With the help of family and friends, they worked tirelessly to renovate the 1,300-square-foot space up until Mark and Paul’s graduation day. Come July 23, 1995, they were open for business. “We ran out of food,” Mark remembers about opening day, when the restaurant, equipped with just a few tables and seats, focused mainly on counter service and deliveries. Now there are 21 locations open throughout Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Louisiana, with three more set to open in 2018.

Pluckers, specifically the West Campus location, has made itself a staple in Longhorn culture. After every  UT football game win, Pluckers employees stand outside the stadium passing out coupons for free wings. The restaurant in West Campus is where Tom Herman can be found on Thursday afternoons during the season, broadcasting his weekly talk show live on the Longhorn Network and 104.9 The Horn. And on rare occasions, it’s where the likes of former UT athletes like Kevin Durant can be found grabbing a bite.

When asked about what makes Pluckers so successful, all three partners answer in unison: “the food.” With 23 sauces available to order, a little more than half the original menu is still offered today. The team rarely makes changes, but when they do, they draw inspiration from places they visit, ideas from staff or customers, or Paul’s continuous experimentation. They had a feeling from the start that Pluckers would be a success. Their hunch was solidified when Wing Zone, a restaurant chain that started in Florida, came to town in 2001. “They were picketed by Pluckers fans,” Sean says. “On their own volition, these die-hard Pluckers fans went out there and were like, ‘Go away! This is Pluckers’ town!’”

Though they’re no longer involved with the day-to-day at each location, Mark, Sean, and Paul still like to be hands-on, making sure Pluckers stays true to its roots. They find themselves eating Pluckers three to four times a week and work to make sure customers don’t feel like they’re eating at just another chain restaurant. Each Pluckers is involved with the communities they’re in, sponsoring local sports teams, schools, and churches, and hosting weekly trivia nights and bingo-inspired “Pluck Hunts” for customers to enjoy.

“We don’t try and be what we’re not.” Sean says. “We’re going to keep serving what we serve, be who we are, and be acutely aware that’s the key to our success.”

Photos courtesy of Pluckers.

 
 
 

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