Operations

Chili's to put It's Just Wings on in-restaurant menus

The virtual wing brand will get a physical presence at the bar and in the dining room as the chain looks to boost traffic.
It's Just Wings will be part of a revamped bar program at Chili's. | Photo courtesy of Chili's Grill & Bar

Chili's Grill & Bar's online-only chicken wings brand, It's Just Wings, is alighting in the physical world.

The delivery concept, which offers boneless and bone-in wings in six flavors along with 12 dipping sauces, will be a prominent feature on Chili's new bar menu. It will also have a presence in the appetizer section of the chain's regular menu.

The 1,130-unit Chili's is hoping the addition of the wings will help boost bar traffic and encourage trade-up in the dining room.

"We see an opportunity to leverage the It's just Wings brand as a trip driver for bar visits and providing credibility to Chili's as a wing player," Brinker International CEO Kevin Hochman said during an earnings call Wednesday.

The effort is part of a revamped bar program that will debut at the start of football season. It includes new happy hour deals, a premium drink lineup and a new food menu including Chili's signature Chicken Crispers and It's Just Wings. 

It's Just Wings will get its own page on the bar menu, where it will be introduced as a "collaboration" with Chili's. "That will be very prominent in the bar because we know that wings and boneless wings are a big thing that people eat at the bar, especially when they're watching sporting occasions," Hochman said.

It will also get a small section on the appetizer menu in the dining room, giving customers the option to add them to an existing meal or trade up to the pricier wings from other apps. 

It's Just Wings was launched in June 2020 as a delivery-only brand that could be operated out of Chili's kitchens. It became a quick success, reaching a pace of $150 million in annual sales. But over the past year, Chili's has de-invested in the brand as it focused on shoring up its core business. 

Now it believes it can bring the brand to a wider audience by bringing it into its restaurants. 

"That's a brand that, while from a virtual brand standpoint, did well, its awareness has basically existed on your third-party platforms," Brinker CFO Joe Taylor said. "And so now you're going to start to have some brand awareness being front and center to the Chili's population as we kind of move forward."

To get the word out about the wings, Chili's plans to use a new customer relationship management (CRM) program that will allow it push the item to guests primarily around sporting events either as a delivery option or as something to order at the bar while watching games.

The change is the latest example of the shifting strategy around virtual brands, which boomed early in the pandemic but have struggled to stay relevant. Giving the brands a physical presence could be the next step in their development. 

And it is part of an ongoing turnaround project at Chili's under Hochman, who took the reins a year ago. His efforts to simplify operations, cut back on discounts and drive traffic with national TV advertising have been bearing fruit. In the chain's fourth fiscal quarter, Chili's same-store sales rose 6.3%—a combination of higher prices, positive mix and negative traffic. The chain said it is continuing to narrow its traffic gap to the industry and is betting efforts like It's Just Wings will help. 

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