Roberts said the next phase will initiate in Q4 as Chili’s investigates the upside of pickup.
“We just know just in general, consumers take out more than they deliver,” Roberts said. “So we have to build the brand's awareness and that's going to take a little bit of work. But if you were to just kind of use historic ratios, you'd be pretty encouraged that, hey, a pickup business or a takeout business for this brand could do very well. And so we're excited. That will be the lessons that we learn here in the next couple of months as to how hard is that. how heavy a lift is that to get the brand awareness up and what kind of response do we get.”
Roberts noted that Brinker has experimented and tested several brands now, and they each have unique aspects. Other than It’s Just Wings, the company is also expanding the test of Maggiano’s Italian Classics, which features a variety of pastas, family meals, salads, and desserts.
As Brinker tacks on this second virtual brand, the question will be whether kitchens can handle the extra stress and if it will jeopardize the on-premises experience. Roberts said restaurants are in the process of answering that question right now. Stores are seeing busy, record-breaking nights while operating two virtual brands, and Brinker feels good about their performance.
Granted, there’s still some work to do, but the company is giving operators all the tools they need and putting the systems in place to execute. Roberts said the good news is that with higher volumes, there’s additional labor in the kitchen. If a restaurant is doing enough volume on a virtual brand, it will have a dedicated cook just focused on that.
“That's, again, the beauty of the scale, the beauty of the resources we have here, both supply chain and our culinary people and our op support people and the great operators we have,” Roberts said. “So it's not to be taken lightly and we don't take it lightly. And that's why sometimes, I think people wonder why we're just not rolling out the next virtual brand tomorrow. And it's like, oh, we want to make sure it's absolutely locked down and that we can support our operators.”
The current labor environment is unprecedented, Roberts said.
He can’t remember this kind of robust economy with nine to 10 million people out of work and not looking for a job. It’s definitely a headwind, but the CEO doesn’t believe it’s a long-term situation. Brinker said the company is focused on leveraging its scale and systems to staff restaurants so that managers can keep stores open and maintain the guest experience.
The company is doing it in a way that doesn’t significantly impact cost structure, like using a little more overtime than it would historically use.
“And so there are some additional things we're doing to entice and to recruit,” Roberts said. “But for the most part, they're more variable and they’re incentives to get people to join and not so much about the long-term wage rate impact that we'll live with for a longer period of time. So we feel good about that.”
“We also feel good about the fact that we're just not out there as aggressively having to hire because we just didn't cut as many, and we didn't cut any managers,” he continued. “So those are things that are keeping us probably in a little bit of a better situation than maybe some that didn't kind of fair as well as we did through the pandemic. So again, more short-term impacts than longer term, and we'll continue to monitor this and see how it plays out over the next couple of months.”