Before launching The Wing Experience, full-service barbecue chain Smokey Bones had trouble getting its wing offerings into the spotlight. The brand offered 12 wing flavors, but Smokey Bones CEO James O’Reilly says consumers mainly thought about other meats when they thought of the concept. So the brand went to work in 2019, conceptualizing a virtual wing platform to bring to its customers.
When COVID-19 closed dining rooms earlier this year, brick-and-mortar Smokey Bones restaurants began to focus more on The Wing Experience as an off-premises chicken-wing option.
“As the pandemic hit the industry and forced restaurant dining rooms to close across the country, we as a company leaned into our off-premises capabilities faster and more aggressively than we had been,” O’Reilly says.
Smokey Bones had reason to be bullish about The Wing Experience’s products. Market trends indicated that The Wing Experience was going to be successful, as O’Reilly says wings were the most popular product for off-premises business by the end of 2019. And with the virtual brand’s expansion to 61 locations since launch, customers confirmed the desire for chicken wings in the digital space.
Other factors helped get the virtual brand off the ground, especially in its operations. The Wing Experience uses Smokey Bones kitchens to create the food, which customers can then order from third-party delivery platform Uber Eats. Though The Wing Experience operates at every Smokey Bones location, the brand also started to operate out of a separate ghost kitchen in Chicago.
“We do ghost kitchens as an opportunity to efficiently grow the distribution of our brands—especially where we have brand awareness, in having Smokey Bones locations in the Chicagoland area,” O’Reilly says.
The Wing Experience leaned into its virtual audience and recruited Chicago-based influencers such as Chicago Food Heads and Paul Eats Everything to review the wing offerings. O’Reilly says the users have given strong reviews of the brand.
The Wing Experience
YEAR STARTED: 2019
TOTAL UNITS: 61
FRANCHISED UNITS: 0
“We’ve always been believers in The Wing Experience,” he says. “And now to see respected food writers in Chicago and in other parts of the country writing rave reviews about our product offerings, it gets us even more excited.”
The backbone of The Wing Experience’s menu revolves around the two types of wings Smokey Bones offers. The first is the hickory smoked wing that’s then fried, glazed, and mixed with a dry rub. The second is the crispy wing, which is a hand-breaded wing that’s fried and sauced. From there, guests can choose from 12 sauces to coat the wings, including flavors like Garlic Parmesan, Spicy Garlic Buffalo, and Chipotle BBQ.
The Wing Experience also invented three flavors unique for the brand to keep customers interested. One is the Peach Bourbon wing, which is a chicken wing tossed in peach puree rib glaze and Jim Beam bourbon. Heat lovers can also opt for the Experienced Wing, a wing that mixes buffalo sauce with Tabasco, cayenne pepper, and brown sugar. However, the Maple Bourbon Barbeque wing stands out as the most popular of the three. This wing mixes in bourbon glaze, maple syrup, and brown sugar before it’s topped with finely chopped bacon as garnish.
O’Reilly has noticed consumers branching out from old Smokey Bones favorites to try the newer flavors. He adds that, with each menu development, one of the challenges is ensuring that the offerings are consistent with Smokey Bones’ capabilities.
“One of the challenges, as we develop this menu, is to ensure that we do it in a way that can fit into our existing operation with our restaurant teams in our restaurants,” he says.
The Wing Experience requires a balancing act in execution in the brand’s packaging, labeling, and branding as it tries to grow its own identity separate from Smokey Bones.
The strategy pushing The Wing Experience into the future focuses on two goals. One is to continue investing in its identity as a sub-brand and build customer awareness throughout its areas of expansion. The other is to innovate new flavors and show culinary capability.
In the future, O’Reilly says, Smokey Bones will continue to prioritize The Wing Experience. By doing this, the company can use the success of the off-premises brand as Smokey Bones’ dining rooms abide by government closures.
But the company saw the off-premises future coming even before the pandemic—that’s why it developed The Wing Experience in the first place. “In the restaurant industry overall, off-premises will maintain increased prominence in the way restaurant industry consumers think about dining,” O’Reilly says. “For us, that has implications for both Smokey Bones and also for The Wing Experience.”
Beyond the external factors driving The Wing Experience’s rapid expansion, success starts at the product, which O’Reilly believes will succeed no matter the circumstance. “The wings category in the restaurant industry, both on and off premises, is very important,” he says. “And so we view the potential for The Wing Experience in a post-COVID world to continue to be strong and compelling for us.”