Pluckers Takes Communities Under Its Wings
The wing bar prides itself on the people it serves, employees and patrons.
Written by Gretchen Goswitz
Photography by Weston Carls with contributed photos
The question on most young adults’ minds when they enter college is: What am I going to do with my life? Most students will stumble through periods of growth and exploration, before eventually coming out on the other side with lifelong friendships and a clear path forward through the real world. But some people—Mark Greenberg and Dave Paul among them—are destined to become exceptions to the norm and to start down their path from the outset.
Greenberg and Paul met as freshmen at the University of Texas in the early ‘90s and recognized very early on that their late-night food options were limited. All that was available for hungry students after a long evening of studying (or any other extracurricular that might lead to the munchies) was pizza and Chinese food—and both got old quickly. Greenberg and Paul thought that chicken wings, a proven southern favorite, would be popular. For the remainder of their college days, they mulled over the idea of opening their own place, tested recipes, and planned how to make a delivery service work. Greenberg and Paul’s dedication to the concept paid off shortly after graduation, when they officially signed a lease in West Campus to open their first restaurant.
“We tested it at fraternity houses, brought it to the Silver Spurs Chili Cook-off, and all the food was a huge hit. We worked on it our senior year, and then we opened up July 1995, which was a few weeks after we graduated. It took off from day one,” recalls Greenberg.
As momentum around Pluckers built, Greenberg and Paul recruited extra help. During their senior year, they brought on Mark’s younger brother, Sean, who was a freshman at the time. He would eventually join full time as the third business partner, but in the early years he would come onboard intermittently during his undergrad and graduate school career.
The original Pluckers concept included a dine-in model and a quality delivery option. When the flagship restaurant opened, it was being run by these two eager 22-year-olds who anticipated being the faces of Pluckers. They’d greet people at the door, give them a warm welcome, and the employees would take care of the rest. Though Greenberg and Paul had been hands-on enough to make it this far, what they didn’t realize was that the work had only just begun. They spent their first two years of business putting in extreme overtime and working in the kitchen, but it paid off and they turned a profit. The partners’ idea was validated upon seeing crowds of UT students embrace their chicken wing dining and delivery service.
Being hyper-present in the early years yielded more benefits than just profit for the founders. It offered them the opportunity to have face-time with their customers and to create a community of their own. Delivery service, meanwhile, had presented a wide set of logistical challenges, especially because it was before GPS and smartphone navigation. So, rather than leading with delivery—which had been the original plan—the founders decided to pivot.
“I think when we first started doing college campuses all over the country delivering takeout, we realized a lot of the quality [of food] is not as good. Our passion revolved around sports and sports bars, and Mark and I learned pretty quickly that we actually preferred being with the people in the store and talking to them and creating that culture instead of just sending food out the door,” Paul says.
It was increasingly obvious that the community aspect to restaurant service should be a crucial part of building the brand, so the partners redirected their focus. And with Sean officially onboard at this point, the Pluckers team could strategically expand to new markets.
Once established as a UT hot spot, the Pluckers team frequently received requests from campus organizations. Having previously been involved in Greek life and affiliated groups while in college, the founders said “yes” to almost every inquiry that came through.
When they opened up stores in Dallas, Houston, and North Austin, however, they didn’t have the same built-in community that came with being next to a major university. The executive team began their search for a new group of people to cater to.
“I can remember very early in the iterations of the Dallas store opening—which was the first Pluckers ‘away’—getting involved with elementary schools, churches, little leagues, and synagogues and all the different community organizations that were in the neighborhood to try to say, ‘Hey, we want to be a part of the fabric of your community,’” Sean Greenberg says.
This symbiotic relationship of supporting the community that supported Pluckers led the founders to be charitable through price matching, food donations, sponsorships, and more—initiatives big and small.
“If it's important to you, we want to be there for you and [for] what is meaningful to you,” Paul says. There has never been an intention to find one long-term partner, because every market that Pluckers serves places value on something different. The founders never wanted to turn down an opportunity to contribute simply based on principle.
The charities and nonprofits they support span far and wide, but the Greenbergs and Paul have shown a vested interest in contributing to youth organizations. “It's always been something that we felt connected to. We all coached youth sports when we were younger, and now that we have kids of our own we’re still doing the same things,” Sean Greenberg says.
While Pluckers prides itself on giving to the public, it also prioritizes the care of its employees. The founders go so far as to describe their workers as family.
“When [Hurricane] Harvey hit Houston, we supported all of our employees that faced loss out there. We rallied our company as a whole and agreed to match whatever was raised, and our stores throughout the state chipped in to help our employees,” Mark Greenberg says.
The founders are the first to admit what a privilege it is to have a business that is positioned to give so freely, but when the Greenbergs were personally affected by Hurricane Katrina, the experience added an extra element of empathy to the Pluckers’ philanthropy. Mark and Sean vividly remember the disparity they felt driving through their hometown of New Orleans in the aftermath. U-haul in tow, collecting the few things that were left from their parents’ home ravaged by water—the Greenbergs could suddenly sympathize with the devastating feeling of loss that they’d heard about from the people and organizations they had helped previously (and would help in the future).
Twenty-three years and that many stores later, Paul and the Greenberg brothers are still overseeing the giving arm of Pluckers. Their journey from young entrepreneurs was paved with many lessons, among them the importance of treating people well. Whether it’s to a long-time employee rising through the ranks to a managerial role, a regular customer who has chosen Pluckers as their go-to place to root for their favorite sports team, or a campus organization fundraising for a philanthropic cause, Pluckers has maintained an unending dedication to treating everyone as their own. Spend time at any Pluckers restaurant, and you’ll encounter patrons who consider the fare to be top-notch, and the communal atmosphere to be even better.