It’s not easy to stay relevant with today’s fickle consumers when you’re a nearly 50-year-old casual dining brand. But Chili’s Grill & Bar is meeting the challenge with several new bar and beverage menu products and promotions.
Chili’s, the flagship brand of Dallas-based Brinker International, this past September unveiled a brand-new Happy Hour and drink menu exclusively available at the restaurant bars. What’s more, whenever football is on, the Happy Hour promotions are on at Chili’s, with offers subject to local requirements.
“We saw an opportunity with our bar in particular what was underutilized,” says George Felix, Chili’s chief marketing officer. A new Happy Hour was a way to invite guests back into Chili’s, he notes, and the brand wanted to anchor it behind a known event: football. “We wanted to make the bar a destination.”
This is the first time Chili’s has released a new Happy Hour bar menu, Felix says. Visitors to Chili’s bar during any football game time will find specials such as a 16-oz. Bud Light for as low as $3, a 16-oz. Modelo as low as $4, and some of the specialty Margaritas for $6.
New bar bites include White Queso Curly Fries, served with a side of house-made ranch and the option to load them up with bacon and jalapeños; and the Chili’s Philly, premium thinly sliced steak, grilled bell peppers and onions, jalapeños and white queso served on a toasted buttery roll. Nine bold wing flavors, from the House BBQ to spicy Mango Habanero, are all served with a side of curly fries and house ranch. And a new dessert, the Grown-Up Molten, is the fan-favorite Molten Chocolate Cake served with a sidecar of Skrewball peanut butter whiskey.
Serving up shots and Ranch Water
Somewhat surprisingly, Chili’s has never offered shots or even had shot glasses in its restaurants. It does now, as part of the new Happy Hour offering.
The specialty shooters include the PB&J (made with Skrewball and Chambord black raspberry liqueur); Lemon Drop (Deep Eddy lemon vodka shaken with simple syrup and lemon); and Green Tea (Jameson Irish whiskey shaken with peach schnapps and lemon sour, topped with Sprite).
Chili’s, which says it’s the largest distributor of tequila and Margaritas in the restaurant industry, has also rolled out a new tequila drink offering: Ranch Water. The simple beverage — tequila, sparkling water and a squeeze of fresh lime — has been catching on in major markets across the U.S.
It’s not just that it’s a trending tequila cocktail, however. Ranch Water, a favorite of cattle ranchers, appealed to Chili’s because it has its roots in Texas, “and we’re a Texas brand,” Felix says. “We want to democratize Ranch Water for the rest of the country.”
The chain brought some other cocktails into the mix with the Happy Hour menu, such as an Old Fashioned. It also added some secret bar items, including an Iceberg, which is Modelo topped with frozen Margarita, and a Michelada — Modelo with Bloody Mary mix, lime juice and a Southwest Cajun rim.
Chili’s tends to be spirits heavy, Felix notes, as cocktails/sprits account for 65% of alcohol sales. Beer accounts for just over 30% and the remaining 3% to 5% is wine. The chain, which is in the process of reviewing its wine assortment, likes to keep a select number of tap handles available for store managers to determine what local beers to offer, he says.
Baby’s got back ribs
Founded by Larry Lavine, the first Chili’s location opened in Dallas in 1975 as a burger joint with Southwest flair. Restaurant executive Norman E. Brinker bought the company in 1983: Brinker International, which today also includes Maggiano’s Little Italy, now operates more than Chili’s 1,600 units in 29 countries and two U.S. territories.
Chili’s focuses on burgers and ribs and Tex-Mex cuisine such as tacos, quesadillas and fajitas. Among the brand’s achievements, Chili’s boasts that it taught Americans how to say “fajita” when it added the dish to its menus in 1984. And in 1994 it became the leader in Margarita sales in the U.S. The “Chili’s Baby Back Ribs” song from commercials in the 1990s, was named the number-one song “most likely to get stuck in your head” by Ad Age in 2004.
Felix joined Chili’s as CMO in July 2022 after holding a number of executive marketing positions at companies including Procter & Gamble, Yum! Brands and Tinder. Chili’s is the first full-service restaurant brand Felix has worked on. What’s that been like?
“A lot of fun,” he says. “Bar and beverage are new to me, coming from QSRs [quick service restaurants], but there are similarities, particularly in brands I worked on such as KFC.”
Felix has two beverage managers: senior manager of beverage information and marketing Nick Foley and senior manager, brand strategy Andrea Langus. They work closely with Chili’s culinary team and with vendor partners on beverage development, Felix says.
The overall Chili’s menu changes three to four times a year, and each time it does, “we make sure to take a look at beverage,” Felix says. The team reviews trends, consumer insights and data from partners to ensure that it is offering the best in beverage — especially in Margaritas.
Among the chain’s top sellers is the Presidente Margarita, hand-shaken with Lunazul reposado tequila, Citrónge orange liqueur and E&J brandy, and the various Margaritas of the Month specials. A featured selection this past fall was the Maker’s Mark-a-Rita, with Maker’s Mark bourbon, Lunazul blanco tequila, triple sec and fresh sour mix.
The December Margarita of the Month has always been a top-three seller in the program each year, and for 2022 Chili’s is bringing back Santa’s Secret ‘Stache, with Lunazul tequila, blackberry syrup, strawberry puree, and triple sec. It’s topped with a candy cane striped straw that has Santa’s mustache attached to it.
Chili’s also held a Nicki Minaj (Barbz) Day in September to celebrate the singer’s recent performance at the MTV Music Video Awards, after the Minaj’s most devoted online fans (The Barbz) mobilized on Twitter. The official Chili’s account on Aug. 22 sent out a tweet that said: “The Barbz asked and we’re ~trying~ to deliver, if this gets 20K likes we’ll have Barbz day @ Chili’s.”
After the tweet generated more than 35,000 likes, Chili’s agreed to host Barbz Day on Sept. 7. Fans that visited participating Chili’s could get a special Barbarita (Cranberry Margarita) for $5.
Chili’s is using social media and word-of-mouth marketing to try to introduce new things to guests, Felix says. He and his team are “really digging into the DNA and core equities of the brand,” he says, such as fajitas, burgers, Chicken Crispers and Margaritas, and focusing on how modernize them for today.
In the process of looking at the overall strategy, Felix says, the question is, “How to bring this amazing brand back to the forefront of consumers’ minds?” The unique offerings and values around Happy Hour, and the efforts to make the Chili’s bar a differentiated experience have been a good start.