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Smokey Bones heads for a recast

The barbecue concept intends to broaden yet simplify its menu and procedures, with women as a key target.
Photograph: Shutterstock

After hiring former Long John Silver’s chief James O’Reilly as CEO, Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill is entering its third decade with plans for a not-so-subtle makeover.

Part of the recast will be a classic back-to-basics drive aimed at restoring the quality that was sacrificed over the years to cost considerations, says Doug Zeif, the hired gun who’s been retained to revamp the menu and operations. He knows what the food was once like because he developed the core of the original menu back in 1999, when Smokey was still part of Darden Restaurants. It’s now owned by Sun Capital, the giant private-equity firm based in Florida.

“As soon as you start screwing around with quality, you start messing with the value proposition,” says Zeif. Traffic and sales slide, leaving further cost cuts as the only way to preserve profits, perpetuating the circle.

“That’s what occurred with Smokey Bones,” he continues. “It’s supposed to be a barbecue concept. We went into a unit after we got this project and said, ‘Where’s the wood?’ We didn’t see any—in a barbecue restaurant!”

“It must return to and revitalize its original core of awesome American barbecue,” O’Reilly vowed in the announcement of the pending recast. But barbecue won’t be the only draw, he stressed.

Explains Zeif, “Our plan is to make it more than barbecue, but not try to be everything to everybody. You can’t do that. You can’t beat Cheesecake Factory.” Zeif and his team at The Concept Gurus are in the midst of the brainstorming process, and “have recently moved into the test kitchen to begin development," he says.

Steaks, salads and sandwiches will remain a big part of the menu, but the lineup will otherwise be simplified for both speed of service and to encourage interaction between servers and guests. “You can have 30 beers, but if your people can’t talk about them because there’s too many, they won’t sell,” Zeif says.

Among the groups Smokey intends to woo with a new bill of fare and operational tweaks are women. “We want to make Smokey Bones as female-friendly as possible,” says Zeif. Women may not typically be part of barbecue’s fan base, but they’re “involved in about 80% of the decisions of where to eat,” and increasing customer frequency is a key aim of Smokey Bones’ rejuvenation, he says.

Not coincidentally, the concept will play down its sports-bar-like features, an integral part of the concept when it launched. TVs will still dot the dining area, but the brand is shooting for a more upscale ambience, Zeif indicated.

He noted that glassware and tableware are being revamped, and he’s working on a new cocktail program.

A guiding principle of the redo will be streamlining and updating fundamental operations. “We’re trying to put procedures in place, getting back to core basics of how you run a restaurant right,” Zeif says.

For instance, new drinks will be chosen in part to spare patrons from having to wait five or six minutes.

“We’re hoping to generate 3% to 5% more alcohol sales out of our new program, just by offering the right drinks,” Zeif says.

He cited additional possibilities such as using two 4-ounce patties of ground meat for Smokey’s burgers, instead of an 8-ounce slab that takes longer to cook.

“The core business of Smokey Bones has to be fixed before you can add restaurants,” says Zeif. “They can take 25% to 30% of their kitchen space out of their prototype. Same number of seats. Smaller footprint.”

The chain currently consists of 62 restaurants. The recast will begin in mid-January on a region-by-region basis, starting with a retraining of GMs and back-of-house staff.

After that, the system will likely start growing again, he suggested.

“I doubt we’re going to march into Dallas or Austin and plant our flag among all the great barbecue places they have down there, but there are a lot of opportunities in areas of the country that don’t have any barbecue choices,” Zeif says. “Our newest restaurant, in Rockford, Ill., is packed, six nights a week. We need to get back to bringing people back in an extra night a week.”

O’Reilly quietly moved over to the top job at Smokey Bones after serving as CEO of Long John Silver’s, a quick-service chain specializing in seafood, for four years. His long resume lists earlier positions such as chief brand officer for Sonic Drive-In, chief concept officer for Einstein Noah Restaurant Group and chief marketing officer for KFC’s U.S. operations.  

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