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Cosmic Wings Is the Latest Virtual Delivery ‘Restaurant’ That’s Actually Just Applebee’s

By Mike Pomranz | FoodAndWine.Com

Troy Warren #foodie-all

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

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, when business wasn’t as good as it could be, Applebee’s simply started sending out chicken under a different name: Cosmic Wings.

Dine Brands—the company that owns Applebee’s (as well as IHOP)—told the WSJthat Applebee’s tested different online-only wing brands, and Cosmic Wings did the best, earning it the long-term go-ahead. These tests were 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.