With a strong interest in food service, Hal Lawlor embarked on his culinary journey at 19 as a line cook at Red Lobster. Little did he know that his initial foray into the industry would go on to create a spark that would eventually ignite a remarkable career. He soon became more involved with restaurant management and spent more than two decades with the brand. Hal worked his way into managing multi-unit restaurants and left Red Lobster as the Vice President of Operations. After Red Lobster, Hal held the role of Regional Vice President at PF Chang’s for several years. Eventually, in 2019, he joined Smokey Bones as Chief Operating Officer.
Under his leadership, Smokey Bones was among the first restaurant groups to enter the virtual space, launching two virtual brands in 2019, two ghost kitchens in 2021 and the first fully-digital casual dining drive-thru in 2022. In October 2022, Smokey Bones launched two more virtual restaurants and a virtual food hall concept that made all five of its brands- Smokey Bones, The Wing Experience, Burger Experience, Bowl Market, and Tender Box-available under the same ecommerce umbrella.
In June of 2023, Hal was elevated to President and COO of Smokey Bones, which is not only a testament to his remarkable leadership but also a sign of the exciting future that lies ahead for Smokey Bones.
Bringing a Change
Stepping in as the President, Hal’s focus has been to streamline business operations, enhance frontline execution, and improve the employee and guest experience. This approach aims to identify and implement innovative ways to enhance hospitality and service within the organization, boosting customer frequency and encouraging repeat visitation.
With catering emerging as a prime element of this growth strategy and Smokey Bones’ future success, the company has made substantial investments in building a comprehensive catering department. It also invested in various technology-driven tools to manage the order flow and client base and added marketing support to assist the sales force in their efforts.
“Our guests consist of families and foodies who expect great food and drinks. My focus is to make sure we have well-trained staff to give every guest an experience that will make them want to come back. As one of the country’s largest restaurant chains specializing in barbecue, we want to give guests unique and innovative dishes and reasons to return. There’s a lot to love around our menu. We offer generous portions of meat rubbed with homemade seasonings, slow-smoked and cooked to perfection, and basted in our tasty barbecue sauce,”– said Hal.
Differentiating the Brand
Hal’s leadership has transformed Smokey Bones’ operational aspects and brought innovation to its beverage and bar program that resonates with its esteemed guests. Chef Peter Farrand, Chief Food & Beverage Innovation Officer, oversees the innovation and culinary execution of the restaurant. He focuses on creating new and delicious dishes and keeping up with the latest trends in the food and beverage industry. Chef Peter partners with Chief Marketing Officer, Cole Robillard, to position the brand as a restaurant leader and increase the relevancy and awareness of its protein-powered menu. Additionally, Smokey Bones’ beverage program contributes nearly 20% of the in-restaurant sales, a remarkable achievement in the ever-competitive world of casual dining brands.
In an era when most casual dining brands in the restaurant industry have been battling sluggishly with foot traffic, Smokey Bones acknowledges and addresses these challenges proactively. Under Hal’s leadership, the casual dining brand is making strong efforts to improve and differentiate the guest experience at its 61 locations and simplify its menus by offering smaller, more manageable options. Hal believes streamlining the menu will eventually improve performance in the kitchen and the front of the house. With a more modest menu, Smokey Bones’ servers have less to remember and can focus their efforts on making a personal connection with the guest about their favorites.
Innovation is a huge driver of Smokey Bones’ growth, particularly as guest preferences continue to shift. Hal and his team are looking to stay ahead of the competition by meeting customers’ expectations, meeting them “anytime, anywhere,” and delivering notable experiences. Over the past three years, the brand’s off-premises platform has grown to over 30% of its business. In the future, Smokey Bones’ focus is to appeal to a broader audience and amplify its catering program using its virtual brands. Over the next decade, Hal expects the brand to be seen as an industry leader in hospitality and growth.
About Smokey Bones
In the summer of 1999, the culinary world was forever changed when Darden Restaurants, Inc. introduced the very first Smokey Bones restaurant in the vibrant city of Orlando, Florida. This moment marked the inception of a brand that has since become synonymous with a singular ethos: “Meat is What We Do.”
Smokey Bones was born out of a vision to provide guests with a warm and welcoming atmosphere where they can enjoy expertly crafted barbecue cuisine made onsite by its smokers, as well as other premium proteins. The brand is celebrated for its award-winning ribs, hand-pulled pork, smoked chicken wings, and creative cocktails.