Applebee's prepares for the launch of its virtual chicken concept

Neighborhood Wings by Applebee's is currently being tested in 700 locations, with a rollout expected in the first quarter of 2021.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill has expanded the test of its virtual wings concept, Neighborhood Wings by Applebee’s, to 700 locations, with plans to introduce the option across all 1,600 or so domestic restaurants late in the first quarter of 2021, brand President John Cynewski revealed Wednesday.

He indicated that Applebee’s is likely to tweak the delivery-only venture before fully launching it, the result of what he acknowledged is a slower ramp-up than the introduction of virtual concepts by some competitors. “The learning is leading us to fundamentally reposition in terms of relevance and menu,” he said, declining to provide preliminary sales or profit figures.

Arch-rivals Chili’s has already expanded the availability of its virtual wings concept, It’s Just Wings, to 1,200 locations.  The brand is generating sales that straight-line to an annual figure of $150 million, according to Wyman Roberts, president of Chili’s and CEO of its parent company, Brinker International. The company is already talking about launching other virtual brands, and hinted that it might try a brick-and-mortars version of the concept at some point.

Another direct competitor, Outback Steakhouse operator Bloomin’ Brands, recently disclosed plans to expand tests of its virtual concept, Tender Shack, to 13 markets.

A host of smaller casual chains, from Smokey Bones to Buca di Beppo, have also launched virtual chicken concepts.

Like those operators, Applebee’s is bullish on the prospects of virtual concepts—essentially brands that are invented as listings on apps and other online ordering sites. “We believe it's a significant incremental [sales] lever,” Cywinski told financial analysts on Wednesday. “We just haven't pulled that yet with any meaningful activity.”

He described the test as a partnership with GrubHub, Applebee’s third-party delivery partner.

Virtual restaurant concepts have proliferated quickly since the start of the pandemic because of the lift they can provide in delivery sales. The brands exist exclusively online. Their menus are limited, with the focus on a particular product to ensure the concept finishes high in the results when a delivery customer searches for a restaurant offering a product they crave. Chicken, and chicken wings in particular, have proven particularly popular as an off-premise item during the pandemic, along with tacos and burgers.

The food is actually prepared in the kitchen of an existing restaurant—an Applebee’s, in the case of Neighborhood Wings, or a Chili’s, in the instance of It’s Just Wings.

Applebee’s provided details of its virtual venture after revealing that same-store sales turned positive during the last week of September, topping the year-ago figure by 0.4%.   

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