A Lowcountry couple that launched the Wild Wing Café restaurants more than two decades ago has sold a majority interest in the 32-restaurant company to an investment firm that includes a former president of Red Lobster and a former professional football player.

"We would like to initially grow the brand to 80 to 100 stores," said Muhsin Muhammad, a managing director at Charlotte-based Axum Capital Partners who is known among sport fans from his football days with the Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers. "Eventually, we think Wild Wings could be a national brand."

Wild Wing Café founders Dianne and Cecil Crowley will retain an ownership stake in the Mount Pleasant-based business and will serve on the board of directors. The corporate headquarters will remain in the region.

Financial terms were not disclosed.

"Needless to say, we are happy with the payday," Cecil Crowley said.

The Crowleys said they are also committed to making sure the restaurant concept they developed doesn't turn into "some plastic group of chain stores."

"We will still treat our stores as individual, neighborhood hangouts," Dianne Crowley said.

Locally, Wild Wings has one location each in downtown Charleston and North Charleston and two in Mount Pleasant.

The Crowleys will continue to own Red's Ice House and Red's at Bohicket, as well as Shem Creek Events.

Edna Morris, a managing director with Axum who has served as president of Red Lobster and Quincy's Family Steakhouse, was named interim chief executive officer of Wild Wing Café.

Morris also serves on several corporate boards, including the Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, which operates Einstein Bros. Bagels, Noah's New York Bagels and Manhattan Bagel.

"We are looking at aggressive franchising," Morris said Wednesday. "Those within the current (Wild Wing Café ) franchise group, as well as new franchisees."

Wild Wing Café operates 11 corporate-owned restaurants and 21 franchised restaurants in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas and Florida. Last year the chain generated about $100 million in sales.

Acquiring a franchise requires $500,000 to $1 million investment up front, not including real estate costs, plus a franchise fee of $50,000.

Cecil Crowley said talks with Axum began in the fall 2010. He said Wild Wing Café has many long-time employees, and the Crowleys wanted to make sure the buyer would be a good fit.

"They are like our kids, and you wouldn't turn your kids over to someone you don't have confidence in," he said.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.