Bloomin’ Brands wants to out-ghost kitchen ghost kitchens

Eyeing a multichannel future, Outback’s parent is expanding a virtual chicken brand and taking Aussie Grill virtual as well.
Tender Shack
Photograph courtesy of Tender Shack

When the pandemic hit last year, Bloomin’ Brands was as prepared as anyone.

The parent of Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill already had partnerships with Uber Eats and DoorDash, on top of its own fleet of drivers, as well as the technology and physical plant to quickly shift to more off-premise business.

“We were very heartened to see that our investments had paid off,” said Michael Stutts, the company’s chief customer officer, in an interview with Restaurant Business

Bloomin’ was already envisioning a multichannel future, and now that vision has become a reality. A key piece of its strategy going forward will be virtual concepts—stand-alone brands that it can run out of existing Outback and Carrabba’s kitchens for takeout and delivery only.

Its first such venture is Tender Shack, which offers chicken tenders, fries and cookies exclusively through DoorDash. Bloomin’ had been kicking the idea around pre-pandemic, but fast-tracked it amid the crisis: From kickoff to first tenders sold, Tender Shack was developed in 49 days, Stutts said. 

After a test this fall, it’s now in more than 200 locations and exceeding expectations. “We have great growth aspirations for it,” he said. “Operators love it.”

Stutts sees it as a way to tap into the growing delivery business using its existing restaurants rather than satellite ghost kitchens, which are “probably not the best real estate in all cases.” he said.

“We’ve got capacity sitting in great real estate that in almost every casual-dining kitchen of a company of our size is unutilized in some part of the footprint,” he said. “We can out-ghost kitchen the ghost kitchens.”

Bloomin’ is also experimenting with ghost kitchens—it’s experimenting with everything, Stutts said—but they’re not a big part of the business for now. 

And it’s testing its Aussie Grill fast-casual brand in a virtual format as well. 

All of the above has helped put Bloomin’s concepts into a new consideration set, Stutts said. The goal long-term is to maintain half of its off-premise business from the pandemic while rebuilding its dine-in volume.

“That makes for an outstanding business model in the future,” he said.

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