Bill Prather didn't want to bite off more than he could chew, so he ordered the sampler platter. That was all it took to whet his appetite for yet another hands-on role in the restaurant business.

He credits the chefs.

"They obviously did some things right," said Prather, the newly appointed CEO of Mount Pleasant-based Wind Wing Cafe and a soon-to-be Charleston resident.

"They" are Cecil and Dianne Crowley, who adhered to a classic recipe for a successful small business. They started from a single location on Hilton Head Island in 1990. They carefully expanded as America's love affair with chicken wings, beer and other sports-bar fare grew. They pulled down enviable numbers: Wild Wing rang up sales of $100 million last year.

The persistence, heartache and pride that go along with running and growing a restaurant business paid off for the couple in January. Charlotte-based investment group Axum Partners saw enough promise in their expanding Wild Wing concept that it bought a majority stake in the venture. Terms were not disclosed.

It's rarely business as usual when these private-equity deals go down. New management often is ushered in to push the acquired company to greater heights and higher profits.

That's where Prather enters the picture. A 40-year dining industry veteran, he was a hot shot at the time he was elevated in 1986 to CEO of Hardee's, which he expanded beyond its Southeast roots through the buyout of Roy Rogers Restaurants and by developing the franchise side of the business. Before that, he had been an executive vice president at Burger King.

Undercover

As it turns out, this red-meat-schooled Indiana native's tastes go beyond a slab of ground beef in a bun. While based in Boston years ago, his territory included Upstate New York, where he frequented the joint that's said to be the birthplace of the classic Buffalo chicken wing.

"I'm always looking for places to have wings," he said.

Prather was running his own restaurant consulting firm in Phoenix when he was contacted by Axum's Edna Morris, a former president at Red Lobster and Quincy's Family Steakhouse and onetime co-worker at Hardee's. Morris was filling in as interim boss at Wild Wing after the January sale and was looking for a full-time CEO.

Prather was interested. But first he went on a wings-filled whirlwind. His goal was to get an unvarnished, clandestine view of the business he was about to take over. Rather than announce himself as the new guy in the corner office, he posed as an ordinary customer.

"I was 'Undercover Boss,' " he said last week.

Prather went even further than the CBS reality series. Instead of sampling one or two locations, Prather dined at all 33 restaurants, driving more than 3,000 miles in eight states over two weeks. The lemon pepper and jalapeno cheese varieties caught his fancy.

"It was an incredible opportunity that Axum allowed me to do that," Prather said.

Franchise player

He didn't find too many major nits on his road trip, saying the chain requires refinements rather than radical surgery. Prather liked the live music and other entertainment offerings. He also was impressed how Wild Wing aggressively promoted itself to build brand awareness even through the recession.

"That has really helped the company," he said.

On the flip side, Prather noticed too much "idle square footage" in some locations.

"In this day and age, you can't afford not to look at every square inch as income-producing real estate," he said.

As he did at Hardee's, Prather said he will be primarily focused on building a strong, close-knit franchisee program to fuel the growth of the concept and develop new menu items. He noted it was a McDonald's franchisee who came up with the Egg McMuffin.

One of Axum's key roles will be to bring more financing options to the table for newcomers. Prather hopes to put the systems in place that will enable the company to add 25 to 50 restaurants annually within a few years, starting by backfilling in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic markets.

While the downturn was rough on the casual dining industry, business is improving, Prather said.

"The restaurant industry feels it first when we're going into a recession, and it feels it first when we're coming out," he said. "People are going out more often. ... It's a good time to arrive."

Reach John P. McDermott at 937-5572.