Applebee's tested multiple virtual chicken wing concepts before landing on Cosmic Wings.

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Already a burgeoning phenomenon before the COVID-19 pandemic, "ghost kitchens"—delivery-only restaurants that operate out of existing facilities—have exploded over the past year as lockdowns dramatically increased the delivery business. Part of that shift has also seen big-name chains launching delivery-only "virtual" brands to grab more business on the side—whether it's Chuck E. Cheese creating the more adult Pasqually's, Nathan's moving away from hot dogs with Wings of New York, or Applebee's spinning off its chicken wing business into Neighborhood Wings.

But another wrinkle with ghost kitchens is that, since they are "virtual" to begin with, not only can they pop up quickly, they can also shut down… or rebrand… very quickly. And interestingly enough, a Wall Street Journal report this week revealed that Applebee's has been sending out chicken under a different name: Cosmic Wings.

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Credit: Scott Olson / Staff/Getty Images

According to WSJ, Dine Brands—the company that owns Applebee's (as well as IHOP)—tested different online-only wing brands, and Cosmic Wings did the best, earning it the long-term go-ahead. "Cosmic Wings, launched on February 17, is the second virtual brand for Applebee's, with Neighborhood Wings being an initial test with a different concept and menu," Scott Gladstone, vice president of strategy and development for Applebee's and Cosmic Wings, explained in a statement to Food & Wine.

"Neighborhood Wings was a great start for us, but we learned that the ability to offer something exclusive—and highly popular—through the online-only platform is a game-changer," Gladstone continued. "For nearly two years, we've been working with our partners at Cheetos and PepsiCo to develop Cosmic Wings and its one-of-a-kind menu featuring exclusive Cheetos-flavored wings and fried cheese bites. We're proud to let our guests know Cosmic Wings is made in nearly 1,300 Applebee's kitchens nationwide."

And all that testing was apparently worth the effort: Cosmic Wings is reportedly pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales every week. "To make an impression, you have to be original and fresh," Dine Brand's CEO John Peyton was quoted as saying—a statement that, with all things considered, is as accurate as it is ironic.

Regardless, the move opens up a larger possibility for diners to consider: Though many savvy online orderers have caught onto the fact that some "new" restaurants are actually virtual brands or ghost kitchens from major chains, what some may not have thought about is that a "new" restaurant could actually just be a rebranded virtual restaurant they've essentially ordered from before. In fairness, we've seen these kinds of swaps in the restaurant industry forever: The ubiquitous "Under New Management" sign at that one location that can never get it right. But with virtual restaurants, you won't see any proverbial signage hanging outside.

To that end, Applebee's clarified its own approach going forward, saying, "With any virtual brands in the future, we will continue to be transparent about their connection to the brand."

Update Mar. 31, 2021: This article has been edited to include additional information from Applebee's and Cosmic Wings.