Filet And Shrimp, and an example of how Firebirds continues to elevate its approach.

Filet and shrimp, and an example of how Firebirds continues to elevate its approach.

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill Heats Up Another Growth Chapter

The pandemic did little to curb innovation at the classic chain. In fact, it did the opposite.

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill CEO Steve Kislow wouldn’t exactly refer to the pandemic as a “good thing” for restaurants. Most full-service brands shed 90-plus percent of their business within literal hours. But the afterglow proved a lot different than the aftershock. “The disruption and the change in consumer behavior that happened as a result allowed us to shine,” Kislow says, speaking from the 23-year-old chain’s new Charlotte, North Carolina, headquarters. 

The Firebirds leaping from COVID’s crater is healthier, stronger, and with loftier average-unit volumes than ever. The reality is, Kislow says, it’s simply a different brand than it was in 2019. Just look around HQ. 

Up front, Firebirds has a lobby designed to serve two virtual brands—Fireburger and Noodles & Greens—to customers in the surrounding market. There’s a shiny, fully equipped test kitchen—complete with the brand’s signature FIREBAR—to fulfill orders, from virtual to catering, as well as test and refine what’s fast become an evolved culinary approach (more on this later).

It's a space capable of accentuating what the pandemic uncovered. “We’ve got an incredibly bright and creative team,” Kislow says. “And during that time, I think this team did things that maybe would never have thought of doing before, whether it was virtual restaurants, family meals, holidays feasts—there’s just so many new ideas that came up that, pre-2020, we probably would have looked at somebody like they were crazy.”

This torrent has become a familiar COVID theme for restaurants. Innovation cycles sped up as dine-in’s exit forced operators to meet guests in fresh channels. However, where Firebirds continues to separate, Kislow says, is in its ability to continue setting new inflections. Where a lot of brands fizzled on initiatives as COVID entered the rearview, Firebirds keeps raising the bar. “Over these last three years, the aggressive nature of which we attack the business has allowed us to gain market share while others eroded it,” Kislow says.

It's a multi-faceted point, and one that ties as much to Firebirds’ DNA as its transformation. Kislow, a former GM at Morton’s The Steakhouse who joined Firebirds in 2003, is an operator to his core who watched the brand grow up over the years. On a Monday night in February, dining at the original Stonecrest location in Charlotte, the lobby is stuffed with patrons. Kislow points out how the dine-in experience, which returned in force, hasn’t lost any of its luster. Less visible than virtual brands and other pivots, Firebirds spent much of the past three years learning how to blend technology and innovation with hospitality, and not swing the pendulum too far on the former’s side. The restaurant is operating more efficiently, but the customer isn’t exactly let in on the secret.

“How to make that dance and make operations better,” Kislow says. “Yet still, the guest doesn’t necessarily walk out feeling like they were just served by a robot.”

Let’s rewind. In the early innings of the pandemic, Firebirds, like countless others, stood up make-shift drive-thrus in parking lots so people could pull up in their cars and have employees bring food out and drop it wherever asked. Stephen Loftis, Firebirds’ chief brand officer, got in line and personally worked shifts. The brand started selling cut steaks and seasoned beef for customers to take home and grill themselves. That’s still a business for Firebirds, namely as summer approaches, and curbside has held in as well, Loftis says. But it was always a task of guarding synergy and trying to maintain what the brand stood for. 

“One of the challenges coming out of COVID is we have this tremendous experience people come to Firebirds for,” Loftis says. “How do you continue to parlay that externally?”

Firebirds took some operational steps and adjusted, and then connected with Flybuy. The platform creates a dashboard where Firebirds can see incoming orders in one place—previously, staff had to keep track of different tablets for delivery and takeout. Now, they’d receive location updates and audio/visual alerts when the guest or delivery driver approached the restaurant, and automatic prompts for the guest or courier as soon as they arrive. 

Out of the gate, Firebirds saw wait times as low as 30 seconds and increased repeat visits. It also cut down carbon emissions by 11,857g each month by keeping cars from idling in the parking lot. Additionally, Firebirds reduced throwaways and food spoilage since the kitchen could prepare and throttle orders to pickup times versus trying to make food in advance. Flybuy helps keep lobbies clear, and Firebirds trains delivery service providers—it’s fully integrated with DoorDash and Uber Eats—to use the system as well.

“They get a text message and then they can track their order,” says Christine Lorusso, Firebirds’ senior director of digital marketing. “It’s really streamlined the process.”

Overall, there’s a queue, not unlike you’d see at a Panera bread, where Firebirds assigns an employee to helm takeaway and facilitate the business so it doesn’t sag dine-in and muddy either experience. There’s dedicated space in stores for Firebirds to “draw the line in the sand,” Kislow says.

“When you understand how to make the technology dance, you can make sure that from 7 to 8 on a Saturday night, it’s turned down a little bit,” he says. “Then it’s turned back up on the shoulders where you have more capacity.”

One of reasons Firebirds’ hasn’t let off the gas owes to a fortuitous bit of planning. To-go comprised a “very small” portion of the chain’s business in 2019. But Kislow says leadership was ready to bet on it. So it partnered with DSPs, Olo, and set infrastructure in motion. Firebirds was deliberate with each step. Then, March 2020 arrived, and the chain’s goals were washed over by a tsunami. The idea was to get somewhere between 15–20 percent of sales and mirror category leaders, or chains focused on lifting the dollars more so than just percentages. “Obviously,” Kislow says, “we had no idea we were going to get to 100 percent really fast.”

And even as dine-in returned, it’s stuck, right in that 15–20 percent of net sales Firebirds originally outlined. Kislow credits getting ahead of the beehive. When the pandemic clamped the sector, many of the solutions powering off-premises didn’t have the bandwidth to take all the calls coming in. Not right away, at least. Every brand, regardless of cuisine or service model, needed a digital footprint and access to channels to get food to customers. 

“We talk about timing, our timing in 2019 was such that we set this all up,” Kislow says. “And when the rocket ship took off, we were there. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.”

That’s when evolution erupted. Firebirds started adding menu categories, like small plates and weekend brunch, when competitors had to shrink offerings as they scrambled. As much as anything, Kislow says, it’s where Firebirds began to grab market share through 2020 and 2021. It ramped up as others tried to regroup.


The FIREBAR remains a main attraction at every location.

An illuminating stat is Firebirds’ frequency. The brand was a roughly six-times-a-year brand for customers pre-virus. Today, it’s 10-plus times a calendar, Kislow says. Firebirds gave diners more reasons to engage. Family meals. Feasts. To-go. “None of those things are taking away from the core dining experience,” he reiterates. “They’re still coming just as many times for that, but now, they’re coming for different reasons as well.”

For instance, a guest who tapped Firebirds for takeout when they had no other option during COVID came back to the dining room once they could. But they also now had an experience in their back pocket they might not have realized existed before. Semantics aside, Firebirds introduced itself though more means than ever. And those threads aren’t slipping away.

All along, Firebirds never lost sight of its dine-in equity. The brand looked at a pay-at-the-table device in 2019 but decided against it because “the devices looked like big, oversized calculators,” Kislow says.

“And even that, to me, it just didn’t feel like a polished experience,” he says. “… We’ve resisted in a lot of ways because I think the moment a computer comes to the table, it’s guest facing. I prefer those things to stay happening in the background, whether it’s Flybuy or OpenTable [the platform Firebirds uses for reservations].”

All of this isn’t to suggest Firebirds hasn’t paid heed to where the tech puck is headed. It’s collecting data and finding ways to leverage it, like others. But it’s always cognizant of guest experience. “It’s creepy for me to know you have a Basset hound, but it’s cool that I know you like Manhattans,” Kislow says, speaking to a writer who does, indeed, have a Basset hound. “So is there a way to get the right data to utilize, and then how do you teach the employees how to use it correctly?”

Firebirds’ Inner Circle program promises customers a chance to become “a Firebirds’ insider.” It informs of events, promotions, new menu items (like an upcoming summer menu, etc.), and exclusive offers. What it doesn’t do, Lorusso explains, is discount. “We’re up to 1.3 million people who are highly engaged, and we don’t offer them anything other than information,” she says. Still, each time Firebirds sends an email to this base, it sees a spike in sales and traffic. “It’s the most loyal and engaged guest we have,” Lorusso says. Firebirds wields data like a key to a VIP vault. It doesn’t need to pulse deals through the funnel because its loyal customers favor experience over value-seeking. That latter cohort isn’t Firebirds’ core user to begin with.

“It’s never been about discounting or rewarding to us, it’s been about recognition,” Loftis says. Firebirds segments its audience, on the marketing side and within restaurants. Ultimately, that means having a guest profile where the brand understands preferences and can deliver. “We know he’s a Manhattan lover,” Loftis says. “His wife’s a vegetarian. His birthday is next week. We cater that experience to you and your family. That’s the goal for us.”

Firebirds is also in the process of redoing its website and revamping online ordering. It will allow the brand to save order history and streamline steps; reduce clicks to checkout and, similar to Inner Circle, provide a customized approach that feels intuitive.

Many of Firebirds’ efforts are being driven by guest feedback. Lorusso and Jordan Jennings, the brand’s marketing coordinator, mine Sprout Social as a listening tool and monitor engagement across all platforms. “I try to respond to every one,” Jennings says of reviews. Even if it’s negative (or insensible), she’ll offer a response with a way to get in touch.

Growth lights up

In late March, Firebirds announced a sale to Garnett Station Partners, a 2013-founded firm that manages roughly $2 billion in assets. Other F&B investments include Authentic Restaurant Brands (Primanti Bros., Mambo Seafood, and P.J. Whelihan's), Kona Ice, and the world's largest Burger King franchisee, Carrols Restaurant Group. It marked the second time in four years Firebirds came under new ownership. J.H. Whitney Capital Partners revealed in early 2019 it acquired a majority interest in Firebirds. At the time, the brand had 48 restaurants. J.H. Whitney bought the company from Angelo, Gordon & Co., who owned Firebirds since 2011 when it had 18 stores in eight states.


Honey Garlic Chicken with Grain Salad.

This most recent chapter arrives as Firebirds boasts 56 locations in 20 states. One of the goals of the strategic capital, naturally, will be to lift that number.

Kislow says, at sub-60 stores, there’s visible whitespace for Firebirds to tackle. It plans to focus on Northern Virginia, the Carolinas, Texas, and Florida, where he sees 10–12 “opportunities across the state at this point that we haven’t leveraged yet.”

What’s intriguing as well is how spread out Firebirds is. You don’t often see chains dot the map like darts. More commonly, concentric circles feed themselves until brand awareness drives out-of-market expansion. Firebirds’ home base of North Carolina has eight locations and Pennsylvania and Virginia six apiece. Tennessee and Ohio each have five. Otherwise, every market has four or fewer restaurants. Texas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, and Delaware each have one.

Kislow says every state has a reason Firebirds opened there, from a founder living nearby to other points. But the important note is, “we’ve been successful” in every one of them, Kislow says. “So now,” he continues, “frankly, it’s much easier for us because we can go and backfill all those markets.” For example, there are only four restaurants in the Charlotte trade. Firebirds isn’t guessing with site selection the way some peers might. It doesn’t need to seed markets to test demand as much as build more units to fulfill what’s already there. That, Kislow says, is an ideal spot to catapult the brand from.

As Firebirds grows, though, it’s working to better share and tell its story. It’s seeking A-plus real estate—it prefers centers with Targets—and designing builds that aren’t just visible; they’re memorable, too. A recent opening featured a new sign package that showcased “Wood Fired Grill” over the top of an expanded patio roof line. “We felt that was important because, what is Firebirds if you don’t know,” Kislow says, “and you’re in a DMA like Dallas-Fort Worth that has so many other great polished casual brands. We wanted to really highlight the wood-fired grill so people know what it is that differentiates us specifically.”

An upcoming Plano, Texas, location will feature that same package, but also what Corporate Chef Steve Sturm dubs “the beacon.” There are two bookends out front. Instead of doing a fire feature inside, Firebirds flipped so people driving by would see a restaurant called Firebirds and then notice two tubes of fire that spin throughout and sit 8 feet high.

The restaurants themselves morphed alongside an industry movement. There are two sizes Firebirds builds presently, both smaller than original layouts. The brand’s first 20 or so averaged in the ballpark of 7,000–7,200 square feet. The larger store today is closer to 6,300 and the smaller between 5,300–5,500. The difference is a private dining room, which holds about 24 people in the bigger model. Even that has changed, however. 

There are now full-glass walls that can be opened to the dining room and the store seats people a la carte if needed. The 8- to 10-foot opening makes guests feel like they’re part of the dining room. Or, the doors can close, shades pulled down, and customers can host an AV style meeting. It’s really about choice and agility in development, Kislow says, especially when you consider delays, costs, and the bevy of external pressures facing restaurant growth. 

You have to get it right and be able to adjust. Another shift to emerge out of COVID is outdoor dining, which Loftis says remains a powerful draw. It was so robust at one point, Firebirds considered upgrading them to all-weather and enclosing them with accordion features.

“But what we found out through the change in consumer behavior over the last couple of years is they want an actual patio,” Kislow adds. So instead, Firebirds implemented hard lids and outfitted stores to fit the market.


Signature cocktails raise the Firebirds’ experience up another notch. 

Firing up the menu

Back when Chef Sturm joined Firebirds in its infancy, the polished casual space was hardly saturated. “It was maybe us and two other concepts,” he says. For two decades, that was enough. In more recent years, however, competitors have raced to catch up. You see this in quick service with fast casual just as you do in full, where a rising tide pushes every brand toward a center of quality.

“We wanted to take a real good look at where we were headed and make sure our concept stayed relevant and was providing the kind of food and service, and, of course, bar, that our guest wants not only now, but into the future,” Sturm says.

Rather than have an internal team direct that effort, Firebirds broadened the base. It created a “Menus of the Future” group made up of eight to 10 people, at any given time, across varied demographics. This “board” of sorts acts as a steering committee. Sturm says Firebirds picked foodies who are out in restaurants—Firebirds and otherwise—active on social media, and willing to see things and pass ideas along. 

Firebirds created internal boxes so the brand can look at everything. There’s a development list and, once the chain gets to a point where it has enough data, it can present new concepts to that group monthly. Basically, “this is what you told us, and this is our response.”

Firebirds makes the food and presents a specific taste panel sheet where it can judge everything from texture to visual to purchasing intent. All points get a score and tweak, if called for, and Sturm eventually presents the final product to senior management.

Just how big a change this is from past practices can’t be understated, Sturm says. Firebirds is using this group for F&B decisions as well as design choices. “I haven’t been this excited about where we’re headed with food since the beginning,” he says. “Not that we haven’t continually developed, but we used to look at things in year chunks. What are we doing this year? And then that’s how we scheduled. Now we’re looking three to five years.”

The overarching goal aligns with everything discussed thus far: get fire and char in front of customers and be uniquely Firebirds at every turn. “We’re the largest wood-fired grill concept in the country,” Sturm says. “And we want to own that space.” Again, it flows from drinks (a recent Cozy Campfire cocktail featured Jack Daniels Rye, Fireball, Angostura cocoa bitters, and a torched marshmallow) to materials inside and outside the unit—trimmed, charred wood as an accent, for one.

Sturm says Firebirds is trying to get a bit younger with its appeal without alienating legacy consumers. It’s doing so by increasing “different dayparts they may gravitate to that you don’t currently have a huge guest count at that time,” he says.

Specifically, Firebirds worked up more robust small plates to complement its FIREBAR and lounge area. Brunch, released in March 2022, is another example, with items like Shrimp & Grits and Skrewed Up Coffee (Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey, cinnamon elixir, coffee, and milk). Kislow says the trick for brunch is to keep getting the guest to the top of the funnel given they’re not necessarily Firebirds’ frequent user. The brand is readying to launch a mimosa carafe program to tap into the category’s social nature.

Broadly, though, Firebirds’ culinary approach is about connecting core traits, just as it is with development and marketing. “The FIREBAR for us has always been a little bit of a business within its own business,” Loftis says. “And so, we want to introduce folks to the concept via [brunch] and so we’ve stepped back and really evaluated that whole platform, not only from a beverage perspective.”

Catering is a work in progress as well. Pre-pandemic, Loftis says, it was a serviceable arm of Firebirds’ business, but one that had ample runway. Behind the curtain, as demand came back, the brand worked on an enhanced lineup that’s now on the doorstep of expanding. It’s geared toward groups of 10, 20, 30 more than giant events, like a wedding.

The same elevation awaits Firebirds’ virtual offerings. Fireburger launched in September 2020 and scaled quickly. It positioned on third-party apps as a higher-quality offering that placed a corner of Firebirds’ menu out in front of users searching for burgers over specific brands. Through the process, however, the chain came across “another interesting space,” Loftis says. And this is where Firebirds created Noodles & Greens, which required about seven or eight SKUs, to disrupt a pasta and entrée salad category that, unlike burgers, wasn’t bursting at the seams.

“It has been wildly successful,” Loftis says. Kislow adds that’s been the case despite the brand not throwing a ton of money behind it. Like brunch, it’s opened Firebirds to incremental visits. It skews more lunch and late night than dinner. Regardless of the occasion, however, success credits to Firebirds’ being what it’s always been, Kislow says, only for a new era. “We’re going to deliver an experience that surpasses expectations,” he says.