Smokey Bones is working with the Howard Company, a partner O’Reilly knows well from his time at Long John Silver’s, where he served as CEO for four years (he’s also clocked time at Sonic Drive-In and Yum Brands overseas).
The menu will be segregated into “Express” items and made-fresh-for-you choices. “We want guests to be able to order many, many of the menu items that they can get very, very quickly,” he says. “Like sandwich combos and wing combs and things like that. And if the guest wants to order a family meal or something that might take a few minutes longer, we’ll have designated spots where they can wait for their order to be brought up to them.”
Smokey Bones will guide consumers to more convenient options, but not limit their ability to get traditional favorites, like a full rack of ribs, for example.
The first version is popping up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, sometime in late Q1. O’Reilly says they’re already in the planning and permitting phases and expect to go into construction sometime in January/early February.
Inside the store, Smokey Bones dedicated a space to build around the drive-thru area. It will feature a dedicated point of sale and drive-thru audio headsets, as well as some holding equipment for the aforementioned Express items. And the store will hire employees, O’Reilly says, with drive-thru experience.
Perhaps the most trailblazing detail: the drive-thru will not only feature Smokey Bones’ products, but also the brand’s virtual brands. The company developed these, in truth, as quick-service concepts. “So they fit very well within a drive-thru architecture,” O’Reilly says of their The Wing Experience and The Burger Experience brands.
“I think we’d be the first casual-dining brand, and maybe the first brand, to offer its virtual brands in its drive-thru,” he adds.
Virtual brands erupted during COVID thanks to extra kitchen capacity as restaurants’ business models shifted outside. It led to everything from bolt-on virtual opportunities (like a MrBeast) to rebranding a corner of the menu and fulfilling it as a different concept (such as Chili’s It’s Just Wings or Smokey Bones’ two concepts).
For Smokey Bones, virtual brands have their own websites, positioning, ecommerce, and marketing plans. If a customer orders from either, they have to come to the restaurant to pick up. The same is true, naturally, of an aggregator. “So a majority of our virtual brand guests already are coming to the restaurant to pick up their order and take it away,” O’Reilly says. “This innovation makes it easier and more convenient for them.”
“And hopefully guests who are just regular drive-thru guests for Smokey Bones will discover the next time I want some great wings or a great burger, I can get it right here at this drive-thru,” he continues.
That excess capacity point remains in focus, O’Reilly says. But how brands can capitalize going forward, and assert more control, has adjusted. “The industry is shifting toward off-premises, and how can we become more relevant to the off-premises guest within the casual-dining industry?” O’Reilly says. “Every study that we read and everything that we hear about what’s happening in off-premises is that, and even more so in post-COVID world, is that the off-premises customer prefers drive-thru over any other service method.”
In a recent Deloitte study, among the options available today for restaurant ordering, the most popular, at 37 percent, was the drive-thru.
O’Reilly says Smokey Bones’ model won’t interfere with the dine-in experience because cars swing behind the restaurant, which is where the order post will be. Cars exit off the other side of the restaurant. “To the dine-in guest, this is totally invisible, so to speak,” he says.
As the brand develops the Bowling Green store and gains experience from the effort, it will “definitely” lead to building more across Smokey Bones’ portfolio, O’Reilly explains. It could then evolve into ground-up development that starts with a drive-thru.
“That’s a thought process that I think is different from the way the casual-dining industry sees itself today in terms of taking care of its customers, but one that we believe is definitely worth looking at,” he says. “… Our destiny is in our own hands and our team is super energized and we want to lead.”