- Applebee's has partnered with Uber Eats to launch a virtual brand called Cosmic Wings on Wednesday, according to a press release sent to Restaurant Dive. It will feature Cheetos-inspired items, will be available at nearly 1,300 Applebee's kitchens nationwide.
- The menu includes wings, boneless wings, cheese bites, chicken tender dippers, waffle fries and onion rings as well as various dips and sauces.
- The launch follows a virtual brand test Applebee's started in 2020 with its Neighborhood Wings by Applebee's concept, which was piloted at 700 restaurants with Grubhub as of Q3 2020.
While Applebee's Neighborhood Wings was the company's first virtual brand offering, Cosmic Wings will be a separate entity, the company confirmed.
"We found that the ability to offer something exclusive — and highly popular — through the online-only platform is a game-changer," Cosmic Wings said.
Cosmic Wings is one of several wing-focused virtual restaurants launching during the pandemic, but aligning with a Cheetos, whose strong fan following has inspired its own line of merchandise and several food collaborations, could be a boon.
The competition, however, is stiff. It's Just Wings from Chili's parent company Brinker International made its debut last summer at 1,050 Chili's and Maggiano's restaurants. In its latest earnings call in January, Brinker CFO Joseph Taylor said It's Just Wings "set a number of sales records during the period" and was on track to see $150 million in annual sales. Smokey Bones also launched The Wing Experience in October, while Chuck E. Cheese parent CEC Entertainment offers wings through Pasqually's Pizza & Wings. Most recently, Nathan's Famous announced the expansion of ghost kitchen brand Wings of New York, which opened in November.
While brands like Chili's and Applebee's are using their existing kitchen spaces to prepare these brands, others like Nathan's Famous, Wow Bao and Famous Dave's are partnering with other restaurants to serve as operators of their brands and prepare the virtual-only menus out of their existing kitchen space.
Even before the pandemic, virtual brands were an increasingly popular tools for chains and chefs to expand their menu offerings through delivery without having to open a new location. Uber Eats says it now has over 10,000 delivery-only restaurants compared to 3,000 in 2019, according to the Associated Press.
Even without Cosmic Wings, Applebee's has been building up strong off-premise sales too. During Q3 2020, the company increased off-premise sales by 144%, according to an earnings call. Delivery sales made up 11.5% of its sales mix while takeout accounted for 23.1% of sales during Q3, according to an earnings release.