Smokey Bones: 12 Little-Known Facts About The BBQ Chain

There's a lot to love about good, old-fashioned barbecue. Huge hunks of fresh meat are rubbed with special seasonings, slowly smoked over wood, cooked to perfection, and basted in tasty barbecue sauce. The end result is a complex, mouth-watering punch of flavors: The sweet richness of the barbecue sauce mixes with the saltiness of the seasoning rub along with earthy notes of wood-fueled smoke to create a truly satisfying balance of taste and texture. And barbecue is something that Smokey Bones knows a thing or two about, as it is one of the country's largest restaurant chains that specializes in this decadent and beloved Southern-based cuisine (via Restaurant Business).

Smokey Bones was founded in 1999 and now boasts nearly 70 locations across the United States (via CBI Insights). Known for its modern yet slightly rustic aesthetic and wide range of delicious meat offerings, Smokey Bones has become a respected presence on the barbecue scene that's often considered superior to other chains (via Restaurant Clicks). That said, die-hard fans and newcomers alike may have some lingering questions about this successful barbecue restaurant. What's the inspiration behind the restaurant? What is the smoking process like for some of its dishes? We answer these questions and more in our quest to bring you up to speed with one of America's fastest-rising chains on the barbecue scene. Here are 12 little-known facts about Smokey Bones.

It used to have burger-battle eating competitions

It's no secret that America loves burgers. In fact, according to Reader's Digest, burgers scored a solid second-place seat as one of America's all-time favorite foods. It's easy to see why: It doesn't get much better than biting into a perfectly juicy, fire-kissed beef patty. Delicious as burgers are, most of us still try to exercise a little self-control, knowing it's probably best to not fill our bellies to the brim in just one sitting. Still, others have appetites that seem to defy the laws of physics and like to put their skills to the test by scarfing dishes down in record time. At one point, Smokey Bones tapped into the seemingly insatiable hunger of its most ravenous patrons by organizing "burger battle" eating competitions for a $2,500 cash grand prize (via PR Newswire).

Here's how it worked: Each Smokey Bones location accepted up to 40 entries. During the first round, competitors had to build their own half-pound burgers, but the burgers had to meet certain requirements. For example, contestants had to choose an extra topping (brisket or pulled pork) along with a cold topping, a hot topping, cheese, and a specialty sauce. Those who ate their burgers the fastest advanced to the second round. During the final round, competitors had to design a second burger, but this time it was even bigger — a full pound. Whoever scored the best time out of all locations walked away with the top prize.

The first Smokey Bones opened in Orlando

When you think of Orlando, you probably envision crowded theme parks, big roller coasters, and other tourist traps surrounded by alligator-infested bodies of water. But the reality is that there's so much more to O-town than fabricated castles and ancient reptiles. The truth is that Orlando has become one of the most respected foodie cities in America (via Orlando Business Journal). And one of the most seasoned restaurant chains on the scene is Smokey Bones, having opened its very first location in The City Beautiful way back in 1999 (via Darden).

According to Darden, that first Smokey Bones location was so successful that only two years later in 2001, the company decided to expand across the country. These days, Florida boasts the largest amount of Smokey Bones locations, with 12 restaurants scattered across the state as of April 2021 (via Rentech Digital). So the next time you plan a trip to Orlando, consider skipping the chaos of its amusement parks and spend some time eating around the city instead. If you're a fan of Smokey Bones, there's a good chance you'll run into one of its locations.

The wings have a customized seasoning blend

In America, the chicken wing is king. There's a good chance that you'll find a crispy bowl of these delicious poultry lollipops at just about any big party, bar, or restaurant around the country. In fact, according to Meat + Poultry, Americans were projected to eat about 1.42 billion chicken wings during the February 2022 Super Bowl alone. It's hard to comprehend what that amount of farm foul actually looks like, but one thing's for sure: It's clear that America just can't seem to get enough chicken wings. Of course, it makes perfect sense for a meat-centric restaurant like Smokey Bones to hop on the chicken-wing train and put its own spin on this highly popular, deep-fried fare.

While other restaurants simply fry their wings in oil and toss them in sauce, Smokey Bones takes the process a step further. According to an alleged employee posting on Reddit, the wings at Smokey Bones are first rubbed in a special customized seasoning blend. Next, the wings are smoked for about 45 minutes, and then they get deep fried to crispy perfection. Of course, if you don't want your wings smoked, you can also just order them fried if that's your preference. We'd recommend ordering your wings the "bones way" on the menu, which comes rubbed in house seasoning and also lightly glazed in a sweet barbecue sauce. The flavor combination of salty and smoky sweetness on crispy chicken is truly mouth-watering.

The restaurant is adding drive-thru lanes

Drive-thrus make picking up grub on the go a breeze, but they're mostly limited to the ultra quick-service world of fast food restaurants. Casual sit-down restaurants with a more elevated menu like Smokey Bones tend to avoid drive-thrus, but the company recently decided to break the mold, recognizing that drive-thrus can help the restaurant fill the needs of more customers (via FSR Magazine).

Smokey Bones rolled out its first drive-thru in 2022 at one of its current locations in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with two different menus to pick from. The express menu will offer a selection of the restaurant's fastest food available and should be ready for customers within about five minutes after placing an order. For dishes that require more preparation in the kitchen, drive-thru customers will choose from "made fresh for you" items and then wait in parking spaces for orders to be delivered curbside. According to the FSR Magazine interview with CEO James O'Reilly, one of the first tasks is hiring workers with drive-thru experience and training workers to smoothly run the operation on new equipment. If all goes well, the plan is to add as many drive-thrus as possible to more Smokey Bones locations (via Restaurant Business).

Smokey Bones used to offer meal kits to cook at home

We've all been there before. You're hungry, but you don't really want to dine inside of a restaurant. At the same time, you don't want to order your food to-go and let it get all soggy and water-logged with steam while it's crammed inside of a takeout box. In these situations, meal kits are a great option. The ingredient selection is already done for you, and all you need to do is fire up the stove or oven at home for a fresh meal bursting with restaurant-quality flavor.

At the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020, Smokey Bones decided to offer meal kits so customers could still enjoy the restaurant's food (via FSR Magazine). The meal kits included delicious options such as a burger package with four burgers, all the toppings, buns, and cheese or a whole chicken with potatoes, roasted corn, and garlic bread. A larger option offered four sirloin steaks, four burgers, and six chicken breasts for home grilling. While these meal kits no longer appear to be available, you can still always pop into the restaurant and enjoy all of your favorite dishes made for you.

The restaurant partnered with a nonprofit to provide financial relief

It's always nice to see successful companies give back to the community. After all, if we want to build a better world, that starts with supporting the people who need it the most — and Smokey Bones has stepped up to the plate to lend a helping hand (via FSR Magazine). In an effort to showcase the company's values and make a difference in people's lives, Smokey Bones teamed up with Skrewball, a peanut butter whiskey company, and Children of Restaurant Employees (CORE), a nonprofit that helps food-service employees with children navigate tragedies like natural disasters, injuries, and deaths in the family.

Here's the deal: for every Skrewball cocktail ordered at Smokey Bones, the company hands over one dollar to support CORE's mission. What's in this cocktail, you ask? It sounds like a more decadent version of a white Russian with a few tweaks: peanut butter-flavored whiskey, Kahlua, and half-and-half. As far as we're concerned, it's hard to imagine a more delicious way to support a good cause.

The pork is smoked for 11 hours over hickory every night

In the world of barbecued meat treats, pulled pork is an undeniably delicious staple. Smokey and savory with a texture that melts in your mouth, pulled pork is carnivore candy that's bound to please just about any barbecue-loving meat eater. It often seems like food quality tends to drop as restaurant chains expand, but that's not the case at Smokey Bones, which makes a valiant effort to produce some top-notch smoked hog in its kitchens.

It all starts with cooking the pork low and slow (via Smokey Bones). Every night at each one of its locations, Smokey Bones smokes its pork overnight for 11 hours. The end result is pork that's moist and tender with a slightly charred crust that adds some pleasant texture. As for the wood it uses, Smokey Bones relies on hickory, which is often considered one of the best smoking woods for barbecue (via The Online Grill). Hickory tends to burn for a long time and also offers a complex flavor profile that's earthy and slightly sweet with a subtle nuttiness. When you pair hickory wood with the smoked pork technique, it's like a miracle in your mouth. It's no wonder that Smokey Bones features it so prominently on its menu. If you want a taste of classic barbecue, you can't go wrong with pulled pork.

Darden Restaurants created a backstory for Smokey Bones

At this point, you're probably wondering how this whole Smokey Bones operation began in the first place. As it turns out, Darden Restaurants invented a backstory to give Smokey Bones an air of rugged authenticity (via The Fried Green Tomato Swindle and Other Southern Culinary Adventures). The story goes something like this: Back in the late 1960s, a young ironworker named Duke tapped into some good old-fashioned American ingenuity and decided to build himself a smoker from an old section of the Rocky Mountain pipeline (via Eastwood Town Center). Legend has it that Duke's smoker made some of the best barbecue that anyone had ever eaten. Was there some magic in that old makeshift smoker? Did Duke have a few tricks up sleeve? It's difficult to track down more specifics about the lore behind Smokey Bones' mysterious and talented founder Duke — and there's a good reason for that. 

It appears the story of Duke the ironworker was cleverly fabricated for marketing purposes by Darden Restaurants. We have to admit that the story doesn't seem totally outside the realm of possibility. It would make perfect sense for the launch of the restaurant to be inspired by a successful barbecue fanatic. In all honesty, the story of the ironworker has us wanting to try our hands at building a customized smoker, too — though we'd probably opt for something a little less sketchy and rustic than an old abandoned pipeline.

The company once sold a large percentage of its restaurants

Smokey Bones appears these days to be on a trajectory for success, considering the new plans it's rolling out for drive-thrus and other upgrades. But it really wasn't all that long ago that the restaurant's future felt much more uncertain. According to the Chicago Tribune, Smokey Bones made a surprising move back in 2007 and decided to shut down over 50 locations and then sold off another 73 of its restaurants for about $80 million. 

A few years later in 2012, a new CEO named Christopher Artinian took over. He moved Smokey Bones into new territory by updating its decor to have a more modern feel and by expanding the menu beyond barbecue in an effort to be more dietarily inclusive. Today, Smokey Bones feels poised to tackle any challenges that may lie ahead, with the current CEO, James O'Reilly, claiming that he's "excited and cautiously optimistic" about the company's future (via FSR Magazine). As fans of Smokey Bones' enticing and eclectic menu, that's music to our ears. But what triggered that massive selloff in the past? According to the Orlando Sentinel, Smokey Bones was struggling to appeal to its customers, particularly in the Midwest and Southeast — a setback most likely due to diners wanting to stick to their preferred regional styles of barbecue.

The restaurant was accused of wage theft

Anyone who's worked in restaurants knows that it's hard work. Whether you're cooking in the kitchen or running dishes out to diners, the atmosphere is often fairly stressful, tiring, and fast-paced. The last thing restaurant workers want to deal with is not receiving all of the money that they've rightfully earned through their labor. So you can imagine how infuriated servers were when they claimed in 2017 that they were being paid under minimum wage (via Class Action).

On top of that, servers claimed that the company did not allow workers to keep all of their tips and required them to perform non-tipped work in addition to working off the clock. According to Waiter Pay, a South Carolina federal court found that some of the policies at a few of the company's locations potentially violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Every restaurant has its ups and downs, but it seems like this accusation has since been rectified. According to Law 360, a settlement was reached with workers in 2019 for $2.7 million.

It used to offer an annual slow-smoked prime rib for the holidays

Does it get any better than prime rib? As a muscle located in a region of the cow that doesn't experience much movement, the meat of a prime rib is irresistibly tender and juicy (via Southern Living). Considering its remarkable succulence, the prime rib is often only trotted out for special occasions. At one point, Smokey Bones capitalized on this by making an annual tradition out of offering slow-smoked prime rib on the menu for the holidays (via Miami Culinary Tours).

The prime rib was generously seasoned, marinated for 24 hours, then slow-smoked in the kitchen and served with au jus, horseradish sauce, and two regular sides. The prime rib special was available only for a limited time a few days a week for dinner. Sadly, it appears that Smokey Bones stopped the prime rib holiday special a few years ago, but we can always hope for its triumphant return to the spotlight. Of course, if you're still on the prowl for steak and you're willing to be a little flexible to get your fix of cow flesh, you'll be happy to hear that Smokey Bones still has some solid steaks on the menu, including a fire-grilled ribeye, filet mignon, and USDA choice sirloin.

The kitchen had a Crown Royal barbecue glaze

Known for its rich, sweet flavor profile, Crown Royal markets itself like the king of booze bottles. With notes of maple syrup, caramel, and vanilla, Crown Royal leaves no doubt that it would make for a good match when whipping up a special batch of barbecue sauce (via The Whiskey Jug). So it made perfect sense for Smokey Bones to team up with the Canadian whisky producer and create a new barbecue glaze for its grilled ribs (via FSR Magazine).

One thing that made these limited-time ribs special was its presentation. After the ribs were glazed and grilled with Crown Royal barbecue sauce, they were topped with crispy onions and positioned in a crown-like rack for customers that made the dish look like a meat-based royal head adornment. A crown made of rib meat might sound kind of weird, but we're pretty sure there were tons of die-hard carnivores who loved it while it lasted. At the very least, you have to give Smokey Bones some credit for being inventive.