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Outback's parent tries a virtual chicken restaurant

Tender Shack features platters and sandwiches for delivery from a dozen Carrabba's units.
Outback Virtual chicken concept
Photo courtesy of Bloomin' Brands

Add Outback Steakhouse parent Bloomin’ Brands to the fast-growing list of restaurant operations that are giving virtual chicken restaurants a try.

About a dozen units of the company’s Carrabba’s Italian Grill chain in Tampa Bay, Fla., started offering fried chicken tenders and fries last Thursday under the brand name Tender Shack. The platters and sandwiches are sold only for delivery via Bloomin’s third-party partner, Doordash.  Prices range from $8.99 for a single order of tenders and fries to $25 for a variety of 20-tender platters.

Tender Shack exists only as an online listing; there is no brick-and-mortar restaurant flagged as a Tender Shack. Rather, the items are prepared in the kitchens of the host Carrabba’s branches.

The company characterized the venture as a test. It declined to reveal results, noting that the test only began on Sept. 3, but commented that it is “optimistic about this extension of our off-premises business.”

A number of competing casual-dining operators have already rolled out their virtual chicken concepts to many if not all units of their main brands. Arch-rival Brinker International, for instance, is selling chicken wings under the brand name It’s Just Wings from 1,050 Chili’s and Maggiano’s locations. Brinker CEO Wyman Roberts says the venture is generating sales at the rate of $150 million annually. The company is already testing other virtual concepts, according to Roberts.

Dine Brands is using its Applebee’s brand as the bricks-and-sticks foundation for a virtual concept called Neighborhood Wings by Applebee’s. The Smokey Bones barbecue chain offers wings through a virtual brand called The Wing Experience.

Virtual restaurants have proliferated quickly across all industry segments as consumers embrace delivery while restaurant dining rooms are closed or operating at limited capacities. The virtual ventures are conceived to come up higher in internet and app searches for popular menu items such as chicken tenders and wings. Users of third-party services tend to search for a type of menu item rather than for a given chain. The approach allows operators who don’t specialize in a popular delivery item to nonetheless capture delivery sales of the product.

Proponents say the ventures offer a way to blaze a new sales channel without the cost of building a restaurant or even a kitchen.

Casual chains had been experimenting with new formats and concepts before the pandemic hit. Bloomin’, for instance, is also trying a fast-casual riff on its Outback concept, Aussie Grill by Outback. Texas Roadhouse said early in the year that it intended to open more units of its Jaggers concept, a drive-thru brand that currently extends to only two locations. Famous Dave’s parent BBQ Holdings is downsizing its buildings while developing a limited-service concept called Real Urban Barbecue.  The Cheesecake Factory bought the parent company of Flower Child, a health-oriented fast casual brand.

Virtual restaurnts offer the advantage of very low start up costs, since all that's needed are a menu, a brand name and food supplies. Typically the items are prepared by the staff of the host restaurant.

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