Sonny’s BBQ cooks up a new off-premise blueprint, served with a side of A.I.-powered market planning

Sonny Tillman founded his first restaurant in Gainesville, Florida, in 1968, when the world was a very different place. Long before smartphones and online ordering, Tillman and his wife, Lucille, dreamed of “serving slow-cooked, all-you-can-eat BBQ with a generous helping of Southern hospitality.” Now 96 locations strong (and growing), Sonny’s BBQ spans eight southeastern states and is one of the country’s largest barbecue chains. 

Before 2020, the brand had enjoyed 5 percent year-over-year growth and steadily increasing average unit volumes (AUVs). Amazingly, when COVID-19 struck — leaving many restaurant brands flailing — Sonny’s BBQ continued to thrive. Although sales took an initial dip in March 2020 and through the lockdown, an ongoing rebrand, a reimagined marketing strategy, and an ability to pivot sparked growth in new places and periods of comp sales growth beginning in June 2020. Throughout the pandemic, Sonny’s has consistently performed above the 90th percentile among casual dining brands and has since shifted to measuring off-premise performance against fast-casual concepts.

What was the secret recipe for this incredible victory in casual dining?

To begin with, Sonny’s BBQ had previously implemented Olo, an online ordering tool that allows diners to order and pay for meals on mobile or desktop devices. When the brand switched to curbside pickup (a customer-focused response to COVID), it was already primed for off-premise success.

Sonny’s also prioritized building and optimizing a seamless drive-thru experience by incorporating it as a key focus of their most recent remodel prototype. Guests have rewarded Sonny’s for their efforts: since March 2020, comparable drive-thru sales are up 51 percent from the prior year and account for 24 percent of total net sales over this period.

The third key factor in Sonny’s achievements was its early adoption of A.I.-powered market-planning tools. By leveraging SiteZeus — a location intelligence platform for multi-unit brands — to analyze a combination of brand-specific and third-party data sources, the BBQ gurus dove deeply into the meat of the matter. A team with incredible vision, Sonny’s BBQ continues to proactively incorporate SiteZeus into its market strategy to pick optimal locations.

With SiteZeus in hand, the Sonny’s franchise development team was able to identify and open one of the top five performing sites in its portfolio — a gem that continues to produce almost 20 percent above AUV to this day.

Shortly after, as the restaurant industry faced unprecedented store closures and plummeting sales, SiteZeus offered Sonny’s BBQ the insight it needed to remain healthy and competitive.

When COVID officially struck the United States, Sonny’s BBQ immediately built and compared two separate models in the SiteZeus platform: one to examine pre-COVID sales for on- and off-premise dining and another to simulate 12 months of the off-premise-heavy sales observed during the pandemic. In addition, by using SiteZeus’ mobile data to analyze changing customer behavior throughout the day, the brand proactively adjusted to shifts in sales across its revenue centers.

Since millennials and Generation Z members were already large users of off-premise dining, gaining their attention was crucial to short and long-term brand survival. As a result, Sonny’s BBQ is now exploring a smaller, trendier prototype with less dining capacity but more kitchen space. If lucrative, this innovative, less expensive model may be the way of Sonny’s future.

Sonny’s BBQ also leveraged SiteZeus’ platform to identify stronger co-tenants. With stronger branding and a larger demographic pool, the concept has discovered greater revenue potential by keeping the company of grocers like Publix and Whole Foods. Bold in their approach, Sonny’s BBQ understands what it takes to win.

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