How a family from Buffalo changed Morgantown’s palate forever.


Homemade chips and chunky salsa

If you happened to be up on WVU’s Frat Row on a certain evening in the spring of 1977, you might have taken part in an event that ultimately revolutionized Morgantown’s dining scene.

Freshman Dan Nagowski and his dad, Dan Nagowski—“Boss,” for clarity—hosted a tasting.

It was a self-defense move on the younger Nagowski’s part. Where he was from, outside Buffalo, New York, people were mad for beef on weck—rare roast beef on kummelweck, a Kaiser-style roll, with horseradish. And Buffalo wings had recently set local menus on fire. So for him, Morgantown’s 1970s restaurant scene lacked pizzazz. “All there was was a few Italian quick-food places and a couple of burger joints,” he recalls. “That was it.”

Nagowski’s dad had just retired from a career as a salesman for Johnson Wax, and Nagowski had a proposal for him. “I said, ‘Let’s open a restaurant and do something different.’”

First, though, they wanted to do a little informal market testing. Several of Nagowski’s swim team mates were brothers at Kappa Sigma, so the fraternity opened its kitchen and dining room for the event. The hopeful restaurateurs served Buffalo wings, beef tacos in hard shells, and beer, and all a student had to do to try it out was agree to fill out a comment card. “Probably 100, 125 people came,” Nagowski says. “They ate all the food we brought.”

Not everybody eats like a frat boy

Boss Nagowski and son opened their first Wings & Things restaurant in the summer of 1977. They set up shop in a grittier part of town—at the upper edge of today’s Wharf District, back when South University Avenue was just two lanes, the building Oliverio’s Ristorante is in was occupied by the West Virginia Paper Co., and CSX still hauled freight along the Morgantown side of the river by rail. “Everybody thought we were crazy,” Nagowski says.

But the idea—to introduce Buffalo wings, beef on weck, and Tex-Mex to a college town that had none of that—drew a following.

In those days, Wings & Things was open until 3 a.m. “When the train came through, the caboose guy would jump off and run up to the restaurant, no matter what time of day it was, and place an order for everybody on the train,” Nagowski remembers. “And then they’d blow the whistle, and he’d run back down with the food.”
Nagowski worked in the kitchen as much as he could while he continued on through college. By the time he graduated, business was so good that they soon opened a second restaurant, in Suncrest, in 1981, and a third in Fairmont in 1983.

It wasn’t all easy—it turned out that fraternity boy enthusiasm didn’t necessarily reflect the whole market. A customer once reported the restaurant for serving undercooked meat—the roast beef used in beef on weck is traditionally served very rare. Since the kummelweck were expensive to bring from Buffalo anyway, the Nagowskis eventually dropped beef on weck from the menu. And when it came to wings, it turned out Morgantown tastes weren’t quite ready for the heat level of the original Buffalo-style wing sauce; they toned it down to more of a mild barbecue sauce. Guacamole wasn’t an immediate hit, either.

In 1985, the Nagowskis changed the name of the restaurants from Wings & Things to Wings Olé. They opened just one more location, by necessity rather than by choice. When the state widened South University Avenue in the summer of 1990, Wings & Things’ original Wharf Street location had to be demolished. “It was at what is now the center of the southbound lane on Don Knotts Boulevard,” Nagowski says—wistfully or comically, or maybe a little of both. They moved the restaurant north a couple blocks and opened in the current location on University Avenue at the Westover Bridge.

And at about that same time, they settled on a menu for their three locations that was pretty similar to today’s: a quirky mash-up of Buffalo wings, Tex-Mex favorites, and a few American standards.

Wings Olé today

Boss Nagowski passed on in 2005, and the third generation—Daniel Nagowski—now oversees much of the operation.

Everything is made fresh in the Suncrest restaurant every day and distributed to the other locations. That includes a wide selection of burritos, enchiladas, and tacos as well as fajitas and quesadillas, with the whole range of filling options one expects. Buffalo wings come with three sauces these days: regular, grandé—that’s the original Buffalo sauce, back on the menu since the mid-’80s—and an extra hot caliente. Sides include nachos, potato skins, and fried mushrooms.

The restaurant’s most popular meal? Overwhelmingly, it’s the Beef Burrito and Fries & Bleu. “It was the favorite in 1977, and it’s the favorite today,” Nagowski says. Don’t bother asking what’s in their homemade bleu cheese dressing. Nagowski and his wife, Melissa, guard the recipe closely, and both are fond of explaining, “That put our kids through college.”

But they did share with us the recipe for another signature sauce—their Salsa Rosa. “We came up with that recipe with input from some family members in Las Cruces, New Mexico,” Nagowski says. It’s best, he points out, made with fresh, high-quality vegetables. “I think it adds a whole different flavor profile—I put it on everything.” Fans of the restaurants will find it’s a good way to approximate Wings Olé flavor at home.

A signature snack on the menu and a kid favorite is the S&S Chips, for “sweet and spicy.” “In Poland they call it a chrusciki, and it’s a dessert,” Melissa Nagowski says.
Like a lot of successful family-run businesses, Wings Olé inspires employee loyalty. Nagowski has particular appreciation for Pham Burton who started with the business in 1981, eventually became operations manager for all three locations, and retired in 2012 but still helps out. Marion Hunter started in 1987 and now serves as operations manager. Debbie Broughton came on in 1986 and manages the downtown Morgantown store today, and Tina Bienkoski, with the business since 1988, manages the store in Fairmont. That kind of stability makes for a consistent dining experience.

Traditional buffalo wings with celery and ranch dipping sauce on a plate ready to eat.

Like a lot of successful family-run businesses, Wings Olé inspires employee loyalty. Nagowski has particular appreciation for Pham Burton who started with the business in 1981, eventually became operations manager for all three locations, and retired in 2012 but still helps out. Marion Hunter started in 1987 and now serves as operations manager. Debbie Broughton came on in 1986 and manages the downtown Morgantown store today, and Tina Bienkoski, with the business since 1988, manages the store in Fairmont. That kind of stability makes for a consistent dining experience.

A West Virginia tradition

Wings Olé has been a favorite affordable stop for generations of WVU students. Meanwhile, times have changed. Buffalo wings can now be ordered in restaurants all over Morgantown with anything from traditional sauce to nuclear-level piquancy to Asian flavors. Mexican restaurants are found in all parts of town, and guacamole is almost as common as ranch dressing.
We have in part the Nagowskis to thank for that. “This is our 43rd year in business in Morgantown. There’s not very many restaurants that stay around for 43 years,” Nagowski says. “One reason is the quality of our food.”

Back in the ’80s, he says, Wings Olé used the slogan “Nothing fancy, just good food.” They’ve also used another slogan, one these transplants from Buffalo, New York, have earned: “A West Virginia tradition.”

Photographed by Carla Witt Ford.

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