Brinker International Inc. introduced this week to its Chili’s Grill & Bar a new line of “Fresh Mex” menu items that executives said should continue to bolster sales and keep costs in line.

The new items are part of several initiatives at Brinker’s 1,557-unit flagship Chili’s brand. Other moves include adding the more fast-casual Chili’s Express brand extension abroad, expanding delivery and tabletop ordering technology to domestic units and reimaging older stores.

The eight new “Fresh Mex” items include two bowls — Chipotle Chicken and Margarita Chicken — that are also offered in Chili’s $7 lunch combo with soup or salad as well as four enchilada choices, a tostada and a crispy taco.

Wyman Roberts, Brinker’s chief executive and president, said on a Wednesday call with analysts after releasing second-quarter earnings, that the new “Fresh Mex” items are  “an enhanced Mexican platform that builds off core brand equity at Chili’s.”

They offer “very favorable cost-to-sales” ratios, he added, and are being supported with a marketing push.

Tex-Mex remains one of Chili’s largest menu categories, Roberts said, with items like quesadillas, tacos and fajitas making up about 15 percent of the brand’s entrée mix.

Brinker is also pushing forward with its Chili’s reimaging program, which it has completed at 498 restaurants in 20 markets, Roberts said. Reimaged units see a sales lift of about 4 percent, he noted.

Roberts said many international Chili’s operators are adopting the new kitchen equipment, design features and labor-efficiency programs in place in domestic stores. With 291 restaurants in 32 countries and two territories, Brinker is also looking to provide new options for international developers, such as the “street-side” Chili’s Express that opened in Mexico City in December.

“Chili’s Express is a unique prototype with a fast-casual look and feel,” Roberts said. “Because of the flexible business model, these restaurants are easily adaptable to various real estate opportunities.”

Brinker has one Chili’s Express at the Edmonton airport in Canada, and two more Express locations are expected to open soon in the Middle East, Roberts said. “We’re excited about the additional growth potential this prototype could provide our international Chili’s system,” he said.

Chili’s is also continuing to expand its use of tabletop technology. About 150 company-owned and 250 franchised restaurants have the new tabletop technology units in place, Roberts said, and the chain has planned a full rollout to company-owned locations by the end of its fourth fiscal quarter in June.

In addition, Chili’s has employed delivery service at about 450 units. “The program is focused on larger parties with a set-minimum order,” Roberts said. “We are not delivering individual hamburgers.” The company sees it as an “ancillary business,” similar to what it has become for Maggiano’s Little Italy, he said.

Brinker opened a new, smaller-format Maggiano’s in Annapolis, Md., in October, bringing the number to 45.

“I’m happy to say this location continues to deliver on our sales objectives as well as give us first-hand working knowledge on what a smaller prototype can do for the brand,” Roberts said.

The company plans to open one more Maggiano’s in the last half of the fiscal year, he said, and plans to open six to eight new Maggiano’s locations over the next two fiscal years.

Brinker reported on Wednesday a 6.9-percent increase in profit for the Dec. 25-ended second quarter, with net income rising to $39.7 million, or 58 cents per share, from $37.2 million, or 50 cents per share, in the prior-year period. Revenue rose 2.1 percent in the quarter, to $704.4 million, from $689.8 million last year.

Same-store sales in the second quarter rose 0.8 percent systemwide, with a 0.7-percent increase at company-owned Chili’s and a 0.9-percent bump at Maggiano’s. Franchised domestic same-store Chili’s sales fell 0.7 percent, and franchised international units saw a 1.4-percent increase.

“We are encouraged to see positive comps at both Chili’s and Maggiano’s for the first time in a year,” Stephen Anderson, a restaurant analyst with Miller Tabak + Co. LLC, said in a note.

Anderson said Brinker’s “above-peer same-restaurant sales” would likely be “helped in part by what we think will be accelerated unit closures at weakened peers, tight cost controls and aggressive share buybacks fueled by strong free-cash-flow position.”

Brinker owns and franchises 1,602 restaurants, with 1,557 Chili’s and 45 Maggiano’s Little Italy units.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: Jan. 24, 2014 This story has been updated with the correct minimum order for delivery.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
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