Chili’s is adding takeout as another sales channel for its virtual restaurant concept, It’s Just Wings, through an arrangement with Google.
Consumers can search for the nearest Chili’s producing chicken wings under the new brand name by inputting “It’s Just Wings near me” into the tech giant’s search engine or Maps application. The search pulls up a It’s Just Wings page where customers can place their order and pay for it. They have their choice of having the wings delivered by a third party or picking them up at the designated Chili’s unit.
The expansion into takeout undercuts two key attributes of a virtual concept: Customers are unaware they’re ordering from a restaurant that doesn’t exist, and that their food was actually prepared in the kitchen of a restaurant with a completely different identity. Usually, patrons find a virtual restaurant when searching for a particular type of item that they’d like to have delivered, such as wings. They order through an app or online site and have the product delivered, none the wiser about where the food was cooked.
With It’s Just Wings’ pickup option, customers will know their wings and sides came from a Chili’s. About 1,000 units of the chain are now offering the wings as a branded option.
Other chains are similarly pulling back the curtain on their virtual brands. Denny’s, for instance, does not hide that its two virtual ventures, Burger Den and The Melt Down, are affiliated with the diner brand. A number of the items are riffs on what Denny’s fans would readily recognize as standards of the brick-and-mortar operation, according to executives.
Chili’s parent company, Brinker International, has hinted that it may turn It’s Just Wings into a full-fledged restaurant brand, with a brick-and-mortar presence as well as a digital one. Executives have said point-blank they intend to follow that initial entry into the virtual field with similar online concepts.
It’s Just Wings is generating sales at an annualized rate of $150 million, according to Brinker. That volume would instantly land it on Technomic’s annual ranking of the 500 highest-grossing restaurant chains. The venture was launched last June.