By Bethany Chambers
HOLLY HILL - Mason Bouterse tosses 10 chicken fingers in the fryer and grills up a hot dog on the side, looking like one of his teenage employees in the company hat and Polo shirt, paired with cargo shorts.
But Mr. Bouterse is no spring chicken in the Wing Zone world. Having started work as a delivery driver for the chain's first location in Gainesville 10 years ago, he has now held nearly every title available: cook, assistant manager, general manger, Florida regional manager, corporate senior business consultant.
In February, though, Mr. Bouterse added the title he always sought: Franchise owner.
He had just turned 30.
With the 3-year-old Wing Zone on Nova Road struggling, Mr. Bouterse purchased it, packed his bags and immediately relocated from a plush home in Smyrna, Ga. and cushy gig at corporate in Atlanta to a small rental in Ponce Inlet and long hours at his Holly Hill store.
His then-pregnant wife of four years, Kristina, followed a few weeks later.
"Kristina wasn't here, so I was working 120 hours a week," he said. "It was a big change, having my feet catch up to me (when she got here)."
The two did not wait around for their house to sell. In one day, Mr. Bouterse flew to Atlanta, where Kristina met him with the moving truck. They had everything in their new home that night.
Owning this store was, the two say, always in the plans. They just didn't realize it would happen so fast.
From a purely business standpoint, this store had "market potential." It served a large area - from Ormond Beach all the way down to South Daytona - replete with hotels, colleges and businesses. Plus, it was by the beach.
"This has been our dream. We made a deal when we got married that if we ever moved back to Florida, we were moving to the beach, and that happened. We said we were going to have a kid in '07, and that happened," Ms. Bouterse said.
"And if we ever bought a Wing Zone, it would be the Wing Zone in Daytona Beach, and that happened," Mr. Bouterse chimed in.
So what if the store was in "dire straits" after being open only a few years?
"Mason turned around another store in Atlanta. He worked in it for three months and made it so profitable they could sell it. He's just always had that eye," Ms. Bouterse said.
Sales are now up 40 percent, Mr. Bouterse said.
But those numbers could be better. As soon as their son Jake's got "a normal schedule," Ms. Bouterse said, she'll go back to her day job: As a graphic designer and public relations representative for this Wing Zone and others.
Her PR side hasn't failed her in her two months of focusing on twice-daily walks and Baby Yoga with the now 7-week old Jake.
"We compare our food to a Ruby Tuesdays or Bennigan's. If you want a thigh and a biscuit for $2.99, you need to go down the street. You can't get that here," she says, tightening up her soft 29-year-old features. The unusually serious look gets a laugh out of the regulars at the counter.
"We have all the quality you would get in a restaurant," she adds, "but we deliver it to your home."
Or work. Or dorm room. Ms. Bouterse has visited 500 local businesses to let people know "they're ready for a change." The store has also begun accepting Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's student meal plan, the Eagle card, and recently catered Bethune-Cookman University's homecoming.
Having filled the role of cook and customer service rep on a recent afternoon, Mr. Bouterse slid around the counter and lifted a sleepy-eyed Jake from his stroller.
"The first words Jake will say are, 'Thanks for calling Wing Zone: Pick-up or delivery?'" said Ms. Bouterse, who had been rhythmically rolling the stroller.
"He'll learn the value of hard work," Mr. Bouterse replied.
On this day, customers slowly filed into the restaurant for late lunch.
The AT&T employee who wanted the chicken fingers and hot dog walked in to find out his "usual" was ready.
"He just needs to ring it up," Mr. Bourterse said with a grin, pointing to general manager Joe Andrito of Ormond Beach at the register.
In a few years, the Bouterses say, they plan to leave the store in Mr. Andrito's and the staff's capable hands and open other stores. They already have plans to open a Port Orange location in 2009.
They also have coastal hobbies they would like to take up - Ms. Bouterse said she's intrigued by skim-boarding, and Mr. Bouterse wants to try surfing.
After they sell that house in Georgia, they would also like to buy a place in Ponce Inlet Jake can call home for years to come.
"It's just the opportunity for freedom. This is what it's all about, being able to build something up that can help support your family and future," Mr. Bouterse said.
"Everything we do directly affects our lives," Ms. Bouterse said. "I can't imagine being in any other business."