Chili's Parent Company Is Going All-In On Virtual Restaurants

Prior to the pandemic, Brinker International—the company behind Chili's and Maggiano's Little Italy—had established an in-house innovation department to imagine what the future of restaurants would look like and develop plans for the company to change with the times. One idea was the establishment of online-only concepts, which would operate out of the company's existing restaurant kitchens. Industry publication Restaurant Business reports that in a phone call with investors, CEO Wyman Roberts revealed that Brinker had been batting around ideas for a number of virtual restaurants, with the first being "sort of a Mexican" concept and the second focusing entirely on chicken wings.

But then the pandemic happened, throwing the entire restaurant industry into a tailspin. Brinker quickly accelerated its virtual restaurant plans and decided that the "It's Just Wings" concept would be first out of the gate. Roberts said the rationale behind the decision was the explosive growth of a competing wing concept (which he declined to identify, but which might very well be this) whose sales have been steadily increasing by double digits since coronavirus lockdowns began in March.

It's Just Wings is a simple concept, and available only on DoorDash. It offers three types of wings: boneless, bone-in, and smoked, the latter of which are made in the same in-house smokers used to make Chili's baby back ribs. (See? Synergy!) The rest of the menu is curly fries, fried Oreos, and that's it. Simple, to the point, and easy enough to execute in a small sliver of a shared kitchen.

It's safe to say that additional Brinker virtual restaurants will follow a similar streamlined menu template, as the future of the entire industry might soon veer away from the large menu format and transition into lean, specialized concepts that can turn profits with small footprints and limited inventory. Roberts told investors that based on the current rate of sales, It's Just Wings is on track to do over $150 million in annual sales, and several other concepts have been fast-tracked to be launched out of the 1,000+ Chili's and Maggiano's kitchens across the country. The company did not provide a timeline for any of these developments, which is probably wise, given that coronavirus will be making the entire food service industry's decisions for the foreseeable future.