Heavenly Buffaloes goes by many different nicknames on campus, but owners Mark Dundas and Dain Phelan prefer to call it the best spot in town.
The 311-square-foot chicken wing shack on Markham Avenue is known on campus as everything from HBuffs to HeavBuff to Heavenly. The two owners have developed a special relationship with Duke students since opening in 2014. After years of teaming up with their wives to concoct and taste all of the wing joint’s assorted sauces, they opened their doors to the Durham and Duke communities, and they found those communities were hungry for chicken.
“When Duke won the national championship [in 2015], the starting five would order from us three times a week. We would talk to them on the phone all the time,” Dundas said.
‘Duke kids are cool’
Heavenly Buffaloes quickly became a staple of late-night Durham cuisine, and its success led the owners to open a new spot in Chapel Hill just last month. However, the owners explained that the Chapel Hill branch doesn’t have the same charm as the original, in part because it’s a sit-in restaurant rather than a shack with rainbow lights, reggae music and bright yellow picnic tables. Above all, they said it just doesn’t have the familial atmosphere that Duke students offer at the Durham location.
The two owners actively participate in the running of their restaurants, where you'll see them taking calls and making deliveries to students who they've become close friends with. The restaurant’s popularity with the men's basketball team also leads to more fun for all 56 employees, including those at the Chapel Hill location.
Duke students’ love of Heavenly Buffaloes means Dundas and Phelan are in on all the gossip, and they frequently get invited to hang out in apartments full of hungry students on Central Campus when they’re out for deliveries.
The two know all sorts of curious bits about Duke’s culture, including the hot competition to get an apartment in 300 Swift. They also know many of the students personally, forming some relationships during the student's first year.
“Duke kids are cool,” Dundas said, smiling as he showed off his Duke knowledge.
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‘We filled a niche’
For Dundas, opening the restaurant was a selfish decision. The Australian native said he just wanted some good chicken wings. In fact, he and Phelan continue to eat chicken wings on a daily basis. Dundas brightens up when he talks about the restaurant, his gentle blue eyes beaming over his long white beard.
Although Phelan admitted a slightly larger shack would be ideal, for the most part, the two business partners are right where they want to be. With no long-term plans in place, the Heavenly Buffaloes shack in Durham is enjoying its fierce popularity, getting between 700 and 800 orders daily.
Senior Adarsh Nellore found out about Heavenly Buffaloes from his friends his first year. Since then, he’s ordered on a nearly bi-weekly basis, though he’s toned it down to about half as often this year.
“It’s just the only option open for delivery late at night. The only other choices are, like, Jimmy John’s or Domino’s,” Nellore said.
He prefers to order when he’s with friends in Perkins Library, at the Center for Muslim Life or hanging out in apartments off campus. To Nellore’s eternal dismay, Heavenly Buffaloes isn’t one of Duke’s Merchants on Points options, which means students can’t pay for food deliveries with food points. Dundas and Phelan explained that if they agreed to Duke’s contract for this, they’d lose a tremendous amount of revenue.
“I’d pay way more for chicken wings if it were on food points,” Nellore countered. “I pay 10 to 15 dollars for wings. I’d pay 20 on food points.”
This passionate loyalty is what Dundas and Phelan love about Duke students, and they know how to take advantage of it. One year after opening, the owners realized they could attract students leaving Shooters II Saloon’s dance floor by providing a bus to escort students straight to the shack.
The bus ensured that a parade of inebriated students would come marching onto Heavenly Buffaloes’ patio a little after 2 a.m. every Wednesday and Saturday night. Although some confusedly ask for quesadillas or pizza, all are satisfied to end up with trays of tasty wings and fries.
“We filled a niche. It’s just a cool place to hang out that’s accepting of everybody,” Dundas said.
Worth the wait
There seems to be some sort of Durham magic wrapped up along with the creamy sauces, thick salts and crispy nuggets cradled in each stamped tray, with the signature red checkered paper and tangy smell that can last in a room for days. That magic is what keeps people calling and placing orders despite delivery wait times that can sometimes reach up to two hours.
Phelan explained that no matter how long it may take for the food to get to you, “it never sits around. The second your order is done and packaged in the bag, it’s out the door.”
This means that if it’s a two hour wait, the 15 people crammed in the restaurant’s kitchen have about an hour and a half’s worth of other orders to cook and send first. Orders often start to come in minutes after opening at 11 a.m.
But the demand for good chicken in Durham inspires the willingness to wait, whether that be on the shack's patio or on your common room couch.