As the newly named president of Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill, Hal Lawlor is focusing on streamlining operational execution before revisiting expansion strategies in the future.
Lawlor joined the brand as COO in July 2019, and was elevated to his current role in June after former Smokey Bones CEO, James O’Reilly, joined Perkins and Hubble House parent Ascent Hospitality Management as CEO.
An affiliate of Sun Capital Partners with 62 locations across 16 states, Smokey Bones has more than doubled its off-premises business since 2020, added four virtual brands, and added its first drive-thru in 2022. In October the same year, it launched a virtual food hall concept that took five brands—Smokey Bones, The Wing Experience, Burger Experience, plus two new virtual brands, Bowl Market and Tender Box—and combined them under one umbrella and website: BiteHall.
FSR sat down with Lawlor to learn about his career journey and his priorities in this new role, and how he will continue helping Smokey Bones evolve into the future.
Walk me through your career journey in the restaurant space thus far.
I actually started at Red Lobster at 19 years old as a line cook, going to culinary school, and my journey launched from there. I got into management early and then worked my way up into multi-unit, and then actually wound up staying with [Red Lobster] for 22 years and left as a vice president running 92 restaurants. That was that was a great run. I left them to go join and support the team at P.F. Chang’s—I joined as an RVP and wound up helping lead the Northeast for them for a couple of years. And when I left P.F. Chang’s, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. I was actually looking for a new chapter and within a few weeks actually, Smokey Bones came up. It was really James O’Reilly, the CEO at the time, and the leadership team just drew me in and painted the picture of where they wanted to take Smokey Bones, and how I played a part in that. And that was four years ago, so it’s been it’s been great.
What initially drew you to join Smokey Bones as COO in July 2019, and how have you seen the brand evolve since then?
I was a manager at Red Lobster when they opened the first Smokey Bones, and I remember visiting the first location they opened in Orlando. I’ve followed the Smokey Bones story ever since it was created—I even applied at Smokey Bones for a VP position they had multiple years ago. So it was kind of nostalgic when I actually did join.
In the last four years, we honed in on our core values; we really did some great work around positioning who we are in terms of what do we want to represent as a restaurant company. We can do what no other brand can do. Everyone can have a bar, everybody can cook a steak, everyone can serve a pasta dish, but we’ve got these amazing smokers we can do such creative things [with]. And so we really embraced meat is what we do, and we can do it in ways that others can’t, and so that’s our unique space.
How will your newly-created role of president shift priorities for you and the brand?
Obviously stepping into this role, I’ll still have my hand a little bit into operations, but I’ll be taking a lot more of a leadership role across the other aspects of the business. When we look at menu and we look at marketing and what’s our approach, even technology and how are we leveraging that, I think what’s exciting is that we’re not changing a whole lot. We’re just pivoting slightly to really enhance the frontline execution, the employee experience, and frankly, the guest experience, as well.
What new tech has been implemented so far, and what’s coming down the pipeline?
One of the things that we brought in this past year was a platform to help us with reservations, with dining room management, and frankly, bringing real order to the dining room. We’ve also brought in some labor management and forecasting tools to equip managers to more effectively deploy labor, and looking ahead at their business, we brought in additional resources in the back of house as well as around kitchen displays, and really focusing in on takeout execution. Obviously throughout the pandemic and after the pandemic, takeout has been a significant piece of the business growth and bringing organization and execution enhancements there has been very rewarding and very well received.
We’re going to continue to look forward—we’re looking at other aspects around order taking [and] around payment options. We’re also continuing to look at training capabilities through technology that would enhance that to bring us into the forefront, so we’re looking at everything we possibly can.
We focus in on a meat-forward menu with unique options. We’ve got the sports bar scene, we are a casual-dining price point, but we can offer things that others can’t.
Talk about the brand’s menu innovation over the past few years, like launching all-day brunch this spring, and what’s coming down the pipeline.
We’ve spent the last couple of years really evolving our menu. Now that we’ve done all that work, we’re actually looking at our core menu as well as the four virtual brands that we have—and that’s pretty wild, because we operate five menus out of our restaurants—and we’re looking at all this innovation and creative work that’s gone into reengineering and building out these menus, and going, what’s working? What can we enhance? What can we streamline to improve execution and operation? And that’s where we’re at right now. We have an amazing chef, Peter [Farrand], and he’s continuing to work on some new dishes for the fall. But in the very near term, we’re looking at what’s winning, what’s not, what needs to be refined? Anything we can do to streamline helps execution as well, to bring consistency from a guest experience.
What are some of your favorite items on the menu at Smokey Bones?
I’m kind of a traditionalist—I love my baby back ribs, I love the wings, but I also love our barbecue chicken, so those are kind of my go-to. I’m not a big sandwich guy, but we’ve got amazing burgers. everyone raves about our burgers and I’m like, ‘Yeah, you know, I’ll just stick with my ribs.’ But that’s just me.
Can you give an update on your virtual brands and any other changes to come?
We operate four additional virtual brands out of every restaurant; we’ve got the Wing Experience, Burger Experience, Bowl Market, and Tender Box. We’re trying to appeal to a broad segment, especially as we launch catering. We are standing up a pretty significant catering platform. Currently, catering is not a huge portion of our business, but in the barbecue space, it’s a very significant catering option, so that’s really some untapped territory for us. And by offering some virtual brands, we can appeal to some clients and consumers on the catering side and offer different variety without it being the same menu. So we’re looking to really build on catering in a pretty significant way.
What does the brand’s growth plan look like?
We’ve looked at where we would be viable, and we’ve identified quite a few locations across the country. But as I mentioned, our immediate focus is streamlining the executional component and focusing in on hospitality and service, and growth is absolutely in our future. We opened two restaurants last year, and we’ve remodeled a couple, and now we took a pause to focus in on executional improvements and some opportunities that we’ve identified, and then we will revisit the growth strategy in probably mid-2024.
Who are your biggest competitors right now?
We’re a casual-dining brand option, right? So we directly compete with the LongHorns, the Outbacks, the Olive Gardens of the world, but we also have a great and amazing bar, so we’re also competing with the Chili’s, and those types of sports-bar type locations, because we offer those options as well. So we thought to ourselves, we’re not Chili’s, we’re not Outback, so who are we? And we can bridge the gap, and focus in on a meat-forward menu with unique options. We’ve got the sports bar scene, we are a casual-dining price point, but we can offer things that others can’t.
Are there any other personnel changes coming up at Smokey Bones?
We are bringing in a VP of operations that will take the day-to-day operational reins, and we’re also potentially looking at lowering the amount of scope each of our directors has; they run a lot of restaurants, and as we focus our attention on improving day-to day-execution, hospitality, and just getting down to those details around training [and] validation, we’re looking at maybe adding a director, as well.
What else can readers expect?
Restaurants have a universal method for winning, and it’s when we get distracted from that method that we kind of make mistakes. People should expect great food and beverage, a well-trained staff, and a culture that’s really just ingrained in hospitality and service—it’s at that core, and my role right now is to help stay that course. We win when every guest and employee just kind of says, ‘Wow, I want to go back.’ Because if every employee leaves saying that to themselves, that’s your retention, that’s your culture. And then when every guest does that, well that’s your repeat business, that’s your growth story when it comes from a guest perspective. And that’s really what we’re trying to do—we’re trying to remove any barriers to success. And so we should continue to see service enhancements and improvements within the brand, both near- and long-term, because that will be our core focus.
What are you most excited for as new president?
As I said, it’s nostalgic for me, just having watched Smokey Bones from its creation and its rise. For me to be here at this stage of my career, it’s just truly amazing. It’s an honor and I’m very proud of the leadership team of Smokey Bones and looking forward to partnering with them as we continue the journey on. The foundation has been laid; the trajectory is there. And the cool thing is, we get to sit here and kind of fine-tune it and see how far we can take this thing, so it’s a great brand, and I’ve got a great team, so I’m just happy to be here—it’s an honor and a privilege, for sure.