Chili’s Parent Brinker International Turns Tech Focus From Front-of-House to Back

Brinker International Invests in off-Premise Growth

In the early stages of the pandemic, restaurants’ technology efforts were focused on consumer-facing initiatives, building out digital ordering platforms and channels to remove friction and boost convenience. Now, with labor challenges compounded by the return of dine-in and the continuing stickiness of off-premise orders, restaurants are focusing their innovation efforts on boosting efficiency.

Brinker International, parent company of Chili’s Grill & Bar, Maggiano’s Little Italy and two virtual brands, has been turning its focus to its kitchens. On a call with analysts Wednesday (May 4) discussing Brinker’s third-quarter 2022 earnings, President and CEO Wyman Roberts explained this shift.

“Now that we’ve fully implemented our new technology-based front-of-the-house service model and takeout systems, we’re pivoting our innovation efforts to upgrade our kitchens for the first time in close to 10 years,” he said. “We’re testing some exciting new equipment that makes our heart-of-the-house team members’ jobs easier, delivers a better product, is more efficient, and more effectively supports high volumes.”

The company is also implementing new technologies in ways that are more visible to consumers. For instance, the company is pilot testing robotic delivery via drone and via autonomous sidewalk rover. Additionally, Brinker is testing out front-of-house server robots dubbed “Rita,” created by California-based restaurant and hospitality technology company Bear Robotics, which Brinker had previously tested in host roles.

Read more: Chili Parent Brinker International Says Automation Is the ‘Heartbeat’ of Innovation

Chili’s Parent Trials Sidewalk Delivery Robots

“We’re taking the robotics technology we’ve been experimenting with at the host stand for nearly three years now and incorporating it into our new service model,” said Roberts. “Our robot, Rita, has been promoted to food runner. She does a fantastic job, and our guests love her.”

Additionally, the company, which pre-pandemic was focused almost entirely on its full-service business, is growing the reach of its delivery-only virtual brands. Certainly, digital orders make up a significant portion of all restaurant sales.

Research from the March/April edition of PYMNTS’ Digital Divide series, “The Digital Divide: Regional Variations in U.S. Food Ordering Trends and Digital Adoption,” created in collaboration with Paytronix, found that about a third of consumers order from aggregators each month.

See more: New Research Shows That Regional Dining Quirks Matter in Tailoring Restaurant Offers

“We’re investing in our virtual brand business on two fronts,” Roberts said on the call. “First, we’re expanding our delivery business in existing markets with additional third-party partners, which drives business across the whole portfolio. Second, as I mentioned last quarter, we’re taking our brands to previously untapped markets and expanding points of distribution around the country through ghost kitchens and smaller footprint locations.”

This move marks a departure from the company’s stated priorities in mid-2021, when Roberts shared that Brinker’s on-premise business would be top priority, even if it meant slowing the virtual brands’ rollouts.

Read more: Chili’s, Maggiano’s Parent Company Slows Virtual Brand Growth to Focus on Dine-In

The company launched its first virtual brand, It’s Just Wings, in mid-2020 and its second virtual brand, Maggiano’s Italian Classics, in summer 2021.