by Larry Austin
The recent National Buffalo Wing Festival honored a native Grand Island family that has built a restaurant chain with blood, sweat and tears, and lots of Frank's hot sauce and Marie's blue cheese.
During the festival over Labor Day weekend, Judy and Floyd Anderson, founders of Native Grill and Wings, were inducted into the Buffalo Wing Hall of Fame for introducing chicken wings to the American southwest. Their daughters Jami Lee and Linda Tritschler brought Judy and a team of 16 from Native Grill to the festival, the company's third time attending the national event.
Drew Cerza, the founder and organizer of the festival as well as the "Wing King," spoke at a dinner Friday when the Andersons were inducted. "It's a good family story, you know, and they're just the nicest people in the world," he said. "With the Wing Fest, we wanted to invite people like that back and celebrate them and also recognize them. They spent their lives promoting a product from Buffalo."
Floyd and Judy moved from Grand Island the summer after the Blizzard of '77. They settled in Tempe and bought a restaurant that Tritschler called "a little, 1,000-square-foot hole in the wall. Oh, my gosh."
They called the restaurant Native New Yorker. Business was tough at first until Judy had an epiphany: add chicken wings to the menu. Lee said the restaurant was the first in Arizona to offer wings, but the food Lee called "craveable" was an instant hit.
"Within six months we had a line out the door waiting for table. But we only had 12 tables," Tritschler said, laughing.
There is one difference. Arizonans prefer ranch dressing to the standard blue cheese.
"We always served them with blue cheese, and probably within a year we had to order less blue cheese and order ranch, because that's Arizona's ketchup," Tritschler added.
This year's festival was about more than just wings for the Anderson family, however. Their induction into the Hall of Fame validated for Judy and Floyd's daughters that all their efforts were worth it. Tritschler called the induction "just a sense of accomplishment. We did it. We made it. We were extremely poor for the first five years."
Cerza said the Anderson story exemplifies the spirit city of their roots. "I always say you can take the person out of Buffalo, but you can't take the Buffalo out of the person," Cerza said. "When they went to Arizona, they couldn't get good chicken wings. And this guy had the courage to move there with four kids and then open up a chicken wing restaurant. Now that's a lot of courage."
Floyd passed that trait on to his daughter. It was especially hard after Floyd passed away, Lee said, but they vowed to make his family business a success.
"When my father was passing, we made a promise to him that we would make Native New Yorker, we would grow it, we would reach him in heaven," Lee said. "We feel like we're really accomplishing that growth."
A new CEO has rebranded their chain, once called Native New Yorker, into Native Grill and Wings. Today, there are 30 Native Grills, with eight to 10 more opening by the end of 2015, Lee said.
"We're excited," Tritschler said. "We're going places now."