The 61-unit Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill barbecue chain is aiming to broaden its sales network through the launch of two “virtual” delivery-only concepts, Wings Experience and Burger Experience, now available in 30 locations.
The brands exist as options listed on the apps of third-party delivery services. Orders are prepared within the kitchens of Smokey Bones restaurants, at least for now, says CEO James O’Reilly. Smokey Bones intends to offer delivery of products under its namesake brand from two ghost kitchens by year’s end. Many ghost kitchens—essentially condos of kitchens rented to a variety of operators for producing delivery, catering and takeout orders—serve as the prep facilities for virtual restaurants, as ventures like Smokey Bones’ two startups are called.
Other virtual brands could be added to the mix, O’Reilly says. He notes that the 30 “outlets” now in operation offer their signatures in markets where Smokey Bones already has a presence. The ghost kitchens will allow the company to offer off-premise meals under the Smokey Bones name in territories where the brand has not yet opened a restaurant. Each will be equipped with smokers to deliver on the chain’s promise of serving meats smoked on-premise, according to O’Reilly.
Photograph courtesy of Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill
The Smokey Bones brand offers wings and burgers on its menu. But the chain may not show high on the list of results when a consumer searches via a third party’s app for restaurants specializing in those products. Essentially offering the items as the specialties of invented restaurants raises the chances they’ll be higher in the queue of options retrieved in a search.
For those reasons, virtual restaurants have also recently been launched by the parent of Buca di Beppo as well as Fat Brands, the operator of the Fatburger fast-casual chain.
“For us it’s a huge opportunity,” says O’Reilly. “It’s highly incremental and is starting to contribute in a meaningful way to profits.”
The only capital required appears to be the branded packaging that’s used for Wings Experience or Burger Experience orders. “The orders appear on our kitchen display system just the way any other order would,” O’Reilly says.
Initially, the virtual kitchens will serve as a way of increasing the sales and transaction volumes of a Smokey Bones store. But O’Reilly suggested that the virtual brands could serve as a springboard for more conventional diversifications down the line.
Off-premise business now accounts for 40% of Smokey Bones’ revenues and is the key driver of a 20% rise in sales, according to the brand, a holding of Sun Capital Partners.
The chain is in the midst of a turnaround that hinges on streamlining the menu to focus on barbecue. It is also revamping its bar operations.
The concept was founded 25 years ago by Darden Restaurants, the parent of Olive Garden, and subsequently sold to Sun Capital.