Smokey Bones drive-thru.
Smokey Bones

Smokey Bones is looking to hire employees with drive-thru experience to operate the feature.

Smokey Bones CEO James O’Reilly on Making Drive-Thru a Casual Dining Reality

Could this be a peek inside the future?

Smokey Bones has begun the process of adding a fully equipped, all-digital drive-thru lane to a restaurant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Unlike some other options in the casual space, the 61-unit barbecue brand didn’t simply open a window for access and offer added convenience for pickup orders. By all measures, this will look, and operate, like a high-tech drive-thru you’d see on a quick-service restaurant, complete with digital order confirmation, high-quality audio, dedicated staff, and menus tailored for speed, including the chain’s virtual concepts in tangible form.

CEO James O’Reilly, who once served as CEO of Long John Silver’s, spoke with FSR about the initiative, how it’s evolving, and why this might just unlock a new era at the classic brand.

Take us to the concept phase.

When we think about purposeful occasion design in next-generation casual dining, to me it means evolving the design of our business so we’re better meeting the needs of our guests for all the different opportunities. And so, for us, it started in 2019 when we began redesigning our asset so it could be more off-premises friendly, with dedicated spaces.

And then everything that happened through the pandemic, with the launch of our virtual brands and realizing these dedicated off-premises spaces in our two new restaurants that we have under construction right now, it all looks very encouraging to us. Drive-thru was a natural extension of that thought process. With a strong brand like Smokey Bones, ensuring we deliver the essence of the brand in each of these experiences will ultimately underpin the success of the drive-thru.

Smokey Bones stands for, of course, being a “protein candy store” and having the most amazing selection of meats and proteins for our guests, no matter how they want them, and having incredible people to take care of our guests and provide them great experiences, regardless of what kind of experience they want to have. The preparation for the drive-thru has sloped from that thought process.

We have very engaging general managers and [Bowling Green GM] Casey Turner is a perfect example of someone who lives in the community, who knows her guests, and who provides great experiences. She’s a guest experience fanatic. And regardless of channel, this is the absolute recipe for a great restaurant team, and for great experiences.

Now, an extension of Casey’s leadership for the drive-thru will be drive-thru trained employees, because it’s important for the guest who comes into this location with very preset expectations of what a drive-thru experience ought to be, functionality, at least. So we’ll be hiring and training people with dedicated experience. People who have worked in drive-thrus. People who know drive-thrus. So we’re ensuring that we combine the very best of what a drive-thru experience can be with the very best of what a Smokey Bones experience can be.

Smokey Bones

Smokey Bones will also dedicate parking spots for guests to have items run out to them.

So how are you honing in on those drive-thru-focused employees?

They tend to come from the limited-service chains. So we’re going to dedicate some of our recruiting efforts to people who have that experience, who were either in those types of roles now or who have been and are very fluent in drive-thru operations.

Can you actually turn this into a positive recruiting angle?

We believe so. A role like this on Smokey Bones’ team would be very attractive to drive-thru employees in any of our trade areas because of the breadth of experiences an employee could have in a Smokey Bones restaurant as part of their development, whether they choose to be a team member or someone on the management track.

Adding this service option to Bowling Green and starting with Casey, I remember the day when I went down to meet with her and how excited she was when I gave her the news. Great restaurant leaders love those types of challenges, and Casey is no exception. And so, Casey is just voraciously learning about the drive-thru equipment, the hardware, the software, how it functions. We’re training her. We’ll be training our new drive-thru employees on how all of the equipment works and on the service steps that are unique to drive-thru versus traditional Smokey Bones off-premises. And, of course, Smokey Bones dine-in. There are unique service steps and all those training materials are being finalized now.

Smokey Bones

Virtual brands, front-and-center, at the drive-thru entry.

Talk about the menu development for drive-thru, including the decision to add virtual brands front-and-center?

As we progress through to the opening, the menu architecture has remained intact. They are the “Express Menu” for drive-thru. Then, we’ll have the drive-thru “Made Fresh for You” items that can be taken to the guest, essentially curbside, by the drive-thru employees. And then, virtual brand menus, which are also express, which means the guest can pull through and pick those items up at the window.

And the allocation of those menu items on the Smokey Bones side, it’s two different menus, is primarily driven by our ability to deliver guest expectations on service times. Of course, we’ll always deliver food and packaging that meets our brand standard, but a drive-thru guest—for an express type experience—will typically have the service time expectation in the 5-minute range from order to pickup. So our Express menu contains items we can do that with. And the Made Fresh for You Menu that we’ll deliver curbside to the guest they’ll still order and pay in the drive-thru lanes, are items that will take a little bit longer. We want the guest to have the convenience of the drive-thru, but we’ll be really happy to take those items out to them in those designated spaces.

With virtual brands, we’re very excited about offering The Wing Experience and The Burger Express. In reality, we designed them to compete with quick-service brands. The Wing Experience is designed to be more of a mainstream chicken wing competitor, as is The Burger Experience with burgers. So these are menus and menu items that we can offer in that drive-thru format.

How did you design the drive-thru so that it didn’t, potentially, interfere with throughput inside restaurants themselves?

It’s an excellent point. We built a custom area for expediting drive-thru orders, with dedicated drive-thru equipment so that we can move food down the back-of-house line for the kitchen into the drive-thru expediting area. It’s not only just for passing the drive-thru orders, it also has hot hold equipment for fries and hot sides. It has hot holding equipment for some of the proteins that we want to keep hot, like the chicken wings and the chicken filets for the sandwiches and burger patties. Things like that. It has cold holding as well for cold sides and a dedicated beverage station for drinks.

This isn’t just simply a window on the side of the restaurant; this is a dedicated drive-thru mini-operation beside a Smokey Bones kitchen.