Ghost Kitchens and Ghost Charters

If you live in the United States of America, chances are you don’t live far from a Chili’s. You know the southwestern-theme restaurant chain that’s sort of the like spicy version of Applebee’s? In the midst of the pandemic, stock in Chili’s parent company, Brinker International, Inc., was tanking. At just $7 per share, the company looked poised to weather the pandemic the same way most restaurant chains have—poorly.

However, thanks to quick thinking on the part of CEO Wyman Roberts and his crew, Brinker International and Chili’s are celebrating a remarkable success story.

Let me tell you about a brand you haven’t heard about: It’s Just Wings. Their story is an incredible one that I first heard about on the Snacks Daily Podcast.

It’s Just Wings is a ghost kitchen, a restaurant that has no physical locations and only exists in the world of delivery apps. Brinker International launched It’s Just Wings in June as a way to make use of then-stagnant kitchens at Chili’s restaurants. The company signed an exclusive partnership with Door Dash—an app itself playing second or third fiddle to GrubHub and Uber Eats. And, It’s Just Wings decided to only sell three menu items: chicken wings, curly fries, and fried Oreo cookies.

That’s it. That’s all you can order from It’s Just Wings. If you want either of those items from them, you have to order them on your phone through Door Dash. Roberts says Chili’s is using the same kitchen equipment used to smoke its well-known “I want my baby back” ribs to smoke chicken wings. The other items only require a fryer.

So how’s that move going? Well, It’s Just Wings is poised to become a $150 million company and one of the top 200 chain restaurants in the United States by year’s end. Weekly sales are now topping $3 million. And, according to Roberts, It’s Just Wings is a capital free business. By utilizing existing infrastructure and simply building a new brand within Chili’s, operating costs are also quite low. 

The result is a stock price that has jumped from $7 to nearly $40 per share as of this writing.

It’s the most relevant Chili’s has been since Michael Scott was handing out Dundee Awards inside of a fictional Scranton, Pennsylvania location on the NBC hit show, “The Office” in 2007.

But check this out, Chili’s isn’t the only brand experimenting with virtual restaurants. Applebee’s, Smokey Bones, Fat Burger, and Chuck E. Cheese have all created their own ghost kitchens. Those move, according to Restaurant Business, have been sparked by search engine optimization.

If customers are looking for chicken wings, they’re going to Google “chicken wings.” With more than 1,000 locations split between Chili’s and upscale sister brand Magiano’s, Brinker International created an overnight algal bloom of localized search results for “chicken wings.” Tasty, huh? But how does that apply to the world of fishing tackle?

Most of you will be reading this column from the desk of a business that already carries “fishing tackle” in its name. That’s good for search results—assuming you’re keeping your Google listings up-to-date and at least have a website and an attempt at a relevant social media presence. But how many of you also sell fishing charters? What about guide services? How about white label outdoor apparel?

You may not have 1,000 locations. And you may not be able to create a virtual kitchen to cook these services up; but for little more than the cost of a business license and a website, you could increase search traffic to those services by creating what I’ll call “ghost charters.”

So Carl’s Fishing Charters shares a mailbox with Carl’s Coastal Fishing Tackle? So what. You’re potentially increasing the amount of traffic your business is building off of search results, which are nearly as good as to word-of-mouth for generating new business.

Consumers long ago adopted Google as a de facto means of answering their purchasing questions. From destination reviews on Trip Advisor to dinner reviews on Yelp!, our society is accustomed to typing or speaking all of our questions into a magic box and letting Google spit out the answer that’s most relevant to us. Most of the time, we don’t even bother to scroll to the second page of results.

When the pandemic began to wreak havoc on the domestic restaurant industry, an ancient restaurant chain decided to step up and become a market disruptor. Meanwhile, our industry has largely ridden a wave of outdoor enthusiasm to stay afloat. But by my observation, very few players in the sportfishing realm have dared to disrupt during a time of increased participation from coast to coast.

Maybe it’s time you start to do that. Maybe it’s time to think inside of the magic box.

Editor’s note: this story appears in the Sept/Oct 2020 edition Fishing Tackle Retailer magazine.