The virtual brand was unveiled Wednesday in roughly 1,300 kitchens nationwide.

The formation of Cosmic Wings, Applebee’s new delivery-only concept, is the confluence of three opportunities, says Scott Gladstone, vice president of strategy and development.

The rise of delivery and growth of the wing category are no-brainers. But the third one, an exclusive partnership with Cheetos, is where Cosmic Wings most plants its flag. 

The virtual brand launched Wednesday in roughly 1,300 kitchens nationwide and is available only through Uber Eats. The menu features bone-in and boneless wings and cheese bites covered in multiple flavors, including Original Cheetos and Cheetos Flamin’ Hot wing sauce. It also includes chicken tender dippers, waffle fries, and onion rings.

Applebee’s has a relationship with Cheetos through its partnership with beverage provider, PepsiCo. Gladstone says the chain was in discussion with Cheetos for a long period, and was waiting for the right time frame to release the innovation.

“We felt that the timing was perfect and a great way to showcase these flavors through a concept that really leans into being unique in that you can find things you can’t find anywhere else,” Gladstone says. “Cosmic Wings will be a brand that is going to be sustainable and that we’ll be innovating against as we go. We expect to see different types of flavors being introduced over time. But for launch, certainly Cheetos is a great opportunity to introduce some flavors that people love.”

Applebee’s is no stranger to the virtual brands game. For nearly a year—before several chains entered the now crowded space—the chain tested Neighborhood Wings to leverage guests’ demand for the food category. From that, Applebee’s gleaned a number of learnings, primarily the importance of differentiation.

Those valuable lessons led to a creative food mashup with one of the U.S.’s most recognizable snack brands.

“We’re winding down Neighborhood Wings and rolling out Cosmic Wings and really leveraging those learnings. You have to stand out in a crowded field,” Gladstone says. “There’s a lot of virtual brands now in the space, remarkably. A couple of years ago, there was a lot of skepticism with a virtual brand, and now it’s pretty widespread and known. And so, there’s a lot of concepts out there that’s all wings, and you have to stand out, and that’s what we’re doing with Cosmic Wings.”

Jessica Spaulding, marketing senior director for Frito-Lay North America, says her company saw a 58 percent increase in cooking among consumers amid the COVID pandemic. And one of the top do-it-yourself recipes submitted was sprinkling Cheetos dust on wings.

That served as an inspiration and starting point for the partnership with Cosmic Wings.

“This is only the beginning,” Spaulding says. “We’re so excited to partner and work with Cosmic Wings to bring more really exciting food mashups in the future.”

To establish efficiency in Applebee’s kitchens, franchisees were heavily involved from the beginning of the ideation phase through launch. As the brand does with all initiatives, it will continue to capture feedback from operators to ensure Cosmic Wings doesn’t harm the experience at Applebee’s. With that said, one of the reasons virtual brands have become so popular is the low overhead and minimal effect on labor expenses.

“It’s something we will measure as we go,” Gladstone says. “The hypothesis for many in the space is that it’s a relatively low investment as it relates to human capital. There’s certainly an investment in training and ongoing support for the brand. But from an incremental cost perspective, it’s expected to be relatively lower than you would expect if you’re launching a brand on a standalone basis.”

Chef Stephen Bulgarelli, culinary lead for Cosmic Wings, says the good news for kitchens is that Applebee’s already produces bone-in and boneless wings. In fact, the product is the best-selling appetizer at the restaurant.

Because the back of the house has familiarity, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to add in Cosmic Wings, Bulgarelli says.

“The sauce comes in ready to go for them,” Bulgarelli explains. “So there’s not a whole lot of complication. If it goes gangbusters as we expect it to, we could run into a little bit of a space issue, but again, I have full confidence that our kitchens can handle this.”

In conduction with the rollout, Cosmic Wings is enticing consumers with a zero-dollar delivery fee on all orders $15 or more from Wednesday through February 28. The initial marketing activity will be followed by more in-app promotions as Cosmic Wings builds visibility on the Uber Eats platform and its subscription program. The virtual concept is planning some advertisement outside the app, as well, in the coming weeks.

Cosmic Wings’ partnership with Uber Eats will be key in understanding customer behavior. According to Gladstone, the brand has the utmost confidence that the third-party delivery company will provide the necessary tools to foster growth.

“Uber Eats has been a great partner—a leader in the space,” Gladstone says. “They have nationwide coverage. They have a large devoted guest base. We think they’re the perfect partner to launch this activity, and we’re certainly going to look to them and be partnering with them to provide us with that feedback on the concept.”

“We think that the product is great,” he continues. “It’s a pretty broad menu. We’ve got not only the Cheetos flavors, but a wide range of wing flavors as well as a new waffle fry and a new chocolate chip cookie and some appetizers. So there’s a lot there, and we need to ensure that we’re capturing all of that feedback and ensuring that we’re innovating, and going forward in the right way.”

Cosmic Wings will launch as one of the largest virtual brands in terms of locations. The scale is comparable to Chili’s delivery-only concept, It’s Just Wings, which rolled out to 1,050 stores in June of last year.  Chili’s has noted in recent months that It’s Just Wings is on pace to become a $150 million brand. In August, the brand estimated that the virtual concept is totaling more than $3 million per week in sales. That equates to comps growth in the low-single to mid-single digits. In January, Chili’s revealed that It’s Just Wings would soon move to takeout.

Gladstone says Cosmic Wings has set some internal metrics, but nothing has been announced publicly yet. He expects more information about specific goals to be revealed in future earnings calls as the brand develops.

He adds Applebee’s is always looking for opportunities to create the long-term sustainable model for casual dining. Gladstone believes Cosmic Wings will be a part of that going forward, but the extent of it is still to be determined.

“There’s certainly a number of benchmarks out there that we’ve looked to, to understand what this opportunity could look like,” Gladstone says. “And we think it’s going to be a brand that could be sustainable. That’s our goal—to create a concept that will stand on its own and that consumers will look to when they’re really wanting a great wings experience in the online space. That’s ultimately what the measure of success will be.”

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Menu Innovations, NextGen Casual, Applebee's