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Smokey Bones CEO looks back for the way forward

Six months into the job, James O’Reilly is re-stoking the barbecue.
Photograph: Shutterstock

James O’Reilly has nothing against fish and chips, a staple of his last charge, the Long John Silver’s quick-service seafood chain. He’s just puzzled by its inclusion on the menu of his new responsibility, the barbecue specialist Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill. 

“The core of this brand is classic American barbecue,” said O’Reilly, who was hired as Smokey Bones’ CEO in May to rejuvenate the 20-year-old Sun Capital-owned brand. ”Over the years, as some concepts do, the brand has become somewhat more diffuse. Bringing us back to our creator’s original aim of offering classic American barbecue is really our mission.”

Toward that end, Smokey Bones will get a new menu in 2020. Fish and chips will not be on it, O’Reilly said.  

Instead, the brand will intensify its focus on house-smoked barbecue and steaks and burgers cooked on wood-fired grills. “There are two things we’re doing on the menu: removing noncore, nonbrand items, and removing items that distract our operation and had, candidly, complicated our job of providing a great guest experience,” he said.

Smokey is already putting more of a focus on its drinks. A new prototype, in Rockford, Ill., features a bar incorporating “the absolute latest, best practices,” with an emphasis on craft beers and cocktails. O’Reilly said he’s just added a director of beverages to his rebuilt executive team to upgrade the bars in the rest of Smokey Bones’ 61 restaurants, which are all company-operated.

The Rockford branch incorporates several new design elements intended to underscore Smokey’s roots as a barbecue place. “You will see flames shooting out of the restaurant, and you will see hickory logs in the restaurant,” O’Reilly said.

Going forward, renovated and new stores will feature areas dedicated to off-premise sales. 

They will also incorporate more technology than the current generation of units, O’Reilly said.

Yet those accommodations to changes in the marketplace will be part of the larger effort to bring Smokey Bones back to its roots. “I found over the year that the core of moving any brand forward is finding what its beating heart is,” O’Reilly said. “This Smokey Bones brand has a great beating heart.”

The concept was founded as a venture of Darden Restaurants, the parent today of Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille. An executive who worked outside of business development, Bob Mock, had a love of barbecue. He and other c-suite-level officials toured the country to try landmark barbecue places and investigate how their appeal could be distilled into a concept with national growth prospects. 

Few operations had tried by that point to establish a national full-service barbecue chain because of strong regional loyalties to particular prep methods. Fans of Texas barbecue sneered at what North and South Carolinians regarded as the best in flame-grilled meats, and Tennesseans shook their heads at what their countrymen elsewhere were eating from their pits and cookers. 

Smokey tried to pull all of those types of barbecue together. It also attempted to position itself as a place for sports and barbecue fans to hang out. Some booths featured electrical outlets for laptops, a novel amenity at the time, as well a slew of TVs around the bar.

The chain grew to 129 locations but failed to gain traction. In 2007, Darden closed 56 restaurants and put the remainder of the restaurants up for sale. Sun Capital, a private-equity firm with extensive restaurant investments, bought the brand in early 2008 for a reported $80 million.

“Smokey Bones was first founded as a sports bar and has evolved into a family brand,” said O’Reilly. He’s fine with that evolution, but he wants the strongest draws to be the bar and the barbecue. 

“The biggest challenge is moving our entire organization on this journey to a better place for Smokey Bones,” he said during a phone conversation with Restaurant Business. “Step one is to rediscover the core of the brand, and to execute that at a higher level.”


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