But key in this process was creating a virtual brand that could leverage the existing kitchen space and real estate without competing with Chili’s and Maggiano’s. And that doesn’t just mean getting in the way of kitchen operations.
“We wanted this to be unique and not just something you’d find in our current restaurants,” Roberts said. “We went with a different fry, some different sauces, and came up with a unique dessert to make the It’s Just Wings brand its own.”
On the flip side, Roberts acknowledged that it’s not as though any type of concept would have worked. That’s one of the reasons the innovation team had to strike a healthy balance between familiar offerings and operational efficiencies.
“If it’s not your core line item, let’s say you do Italian food—OK, you’re going to do burgers now?” Roberts said. “That’s not in the wheelhouse of most Italian restaurants, that’s going to add a complexity that could take you off your main game.”
With It’s Just Wings in its infantile stages, it will be interesting to see where the brand goes from here. Throughout the meeting with members of the media, Roberts stressed that he and his team were pleased with the results so far, but still very much considered It’s Just Wings a work in progress. He indicated that they had not yet established a loyalty program or really invested anything into marketing efforts beyond their partnership with DoorDash. As far as how it grows onward, that’s also to be determined, Roberts said.
“You could franchise virtual concepts, but it’s not our priority right now,” Roberts said. “I think our priority is to establish this brand, really understand how to grow it, seed it within the community, and get operational and executional elements really fine tuned. But then that is another option in terms of future growth of a virtual brand. We have 1,000 locations and a lot of markets that we’re not in. So if you could find a partner that you thought could hold the quality of the brand, that’s something that you could consider.”
Not every brand has 1,000 kitchens, but the fact that Brinker was able to pull off a concept like It’s Just Wings virtually overnight is proof successful pivots can be made at scale, and in a hurry. And you could spin this two ways—it was either just a few weeks of really positive sales figures, or it was just the tip of the iceberg of what can be gained with a virtual brand that fits into your operational leverage, and drives large amounts of revenue with minimal investment.
For now, it’s put Brinker in an enviable position, the company said. Today, 36 percent of stores are reporting positive year-over-year sales figures. And although Chili’s fully expects to see some of its biggest competitors launch similar virtual concepts in the future, it feels comfortable knowing that it’s spent more than just a summer trying to perfect it.
“If you think you can beat me at my own game,” Roberts said, “then good luck.”