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Burger-Experience.gif Smokey Bones
Smokey Bones' virtual brand The Burger Experience features five burger builds, plus a build-your-own option, for about $6.

Smokey Bones' CEO on building a brand identity for a virtual concept

James O’Reilly sees more opportunity in the increasingly crowded space of delivery-only dining

Smokey Bones is strengthening the individual identities of its two virtual brands as the barbecue chain considers further expansion into the delivery-only space, CEO James O’Reilly said in a recent interview with Nation’s Restaurant News.

The Adventura, Fla.-based chain had begun experimenting with the virtual brand model back in 2019, long before it became a popular pandemic pivot for restaurant chains to launch new brands that are available for delivery only as an additional revenue stream.

Initially it was wings and burgers, though wings proved to be a popular option and the company invested in building separate properties for what is now The Wing Experience, known for its 50 flavors of jumbo smoked chicken wings. 

The brand has its own website where guests can order, though the menu is also available through third-party marketplaces. There’s a loyalty program and dedicated packaging.

“It’s operating as a restaurant brand, it just happens to not have a brick-and-mortar location, though it could at some point,” said O’Reilly.

Now the chain has built a similar brand presence for The Burger Experience, which is also available for delivery only out of the kitchens of 61 Smokey Bones restaurants across 16 states.

The menu includes five burger creations and a build-your-own option for about $6 each, plus a combo option with crinkle fries. The brand uses ingredients already on the menu at Smokey Bones, so it’s “easy operationally,” O’Reilly said.

The full-service Smokey Bones has been joined by a dozens of other chains adding virtual brand operations to their restaurant kitchens, including Brinker International, Bloomin’ Brands, Cracker Barrel, Applebee’s, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Denny’s.

As the virtual space becomes more crowded, O’Reilly said it can be a costly investment for restaurant chains to earn the brand’s placement on third-party delivery sites — or how high the Burger Experience listing comes in a guest’s search for “burgers near me,” for example. 

O’Reilly sees third-party sites as strong partners for winning first-time users. “Acquiring new users is an expensive proposition, no matter how you look at it,” he said.

The trick is getting those trial guests to come back and order directly through the virtual brand platforms, which vastly improves margins. And that’s why brand awareness is key, he said.

“Digitally, we have the ability to target people who are using third party — wings lovers and burger lovers — on all the social media platforms,” he said. “Those brands are earning their own way forward.”

Neither The Wing Experience nor The Burger Experience websites identifies Smokey Bones as the point of origin for the menu, but O’Reilly said it’s no secret. “There’s a sign on the door at the restaurants saying it’s also the home of the Wing Experience.”

O’Reilly declined to reveal sales from the two virtual brands, but he said it was “meaningful and material — enough to want to continue developing them.”

Smokey Bones is looking at more virtual concepts, but they’re not ready to say what just yet.

“We’re looking at things that operationally are within our core competency,” he said.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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