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Smokey Bones drive-thru
Smokey Bones opened its drive-thru program this year in June and has had tremendous success in just the first few months.

Smokey Bones is out to prove that drive-thru can work in full service

Casual-dining player became the first to use this pandemic solution

Drive-thrus became crucial during the pandemic as restaurants increasingly moved out to the suburbs, where much of their business was working from home. Many fast-casual brands that had never had drive-thrus before, like Sweetgreen and Shake Shack, introduced new prototypes featuring an outdoor lane, while traditional QSR players like Taco Bell and Burger King rolled out plans for next-generation stores.

With predictions that the pandemic would permanently alter the way that consumers engaged with their favorite restaurants, brands started opening up drive-thrus all over the place. The one question seemed to be whether that would extend to the full-service category.

And Smokey Bones became the brand that answered that question.

The casual-dining “meat candy shop,” as CEO James O’Reilly calls it, opened its drive-thru program this year in June and has had tremendous success in just the first few months. The quick-service-like drive-thru is built to mimic a traditional drive-thru, but it’s so much more.

"We believe drive-thru is a next-generation initiative for casual dining and has the potential to redefine what 'fast casual' really means,” O’Reilly said.

The drive-thru combines a digital menuboard, digital order confirmation, high-quality audio, a drive-up window for express menu pickup and parking spots for customers ordering food that takes more time. Customers can drive up and order just like at a standard QSR; it’s not just a mobile-order pickup lane, like at many fast casuals.

Items on the menu are suggested to customers just like a traditional drive-thru as well, O’Reilly said.

The menu is split into three parts: Express Smokey Bones, or items ready in 5 minutes or less; a curbside menu, which is the full menu, like a rack of ribs, in which case the customer pulls off to the side and waits in a parking spot; and items from the chain’s two virtual brands, The Burger Experience and The Wing Experience, which were developed pre-pandemic.

“It could be the first time in the industry where a virtual brand ever showed up on an actual drive-thru menuboard,” O’Reilly said.

All of this is available now at the Bowling Green, Ky., location — the only drive-thru set up today.

Bringing the virtual brands to the drive-thru, O’Reilly said, was an easy process “because we already offered the virtual brands in our traditional [units], a.k.a. using your traditional on-premises methods,” he said. “And so adding the drive-thru, as far as the virtual brands are concerned, was fairly straightforward.”

The operational innovation from Smokey Bones could unlock a massive opportunity for the rest of the casual-dining category. But for O’Reilly, it’s all table stakes in successfully running a restaurant.

“We think about the operations of the company as where are we innovating and investing to improve Smokey Bones as a brand for our guests and to drive the performance of the company,” said O’Reilly.

Smokey Bones will be honored as the Operations Creator at CREATE: The Future of Foodservice in Denver, taking place Sept. 19-21.

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