DARDEN HIRES LOWE FOR BARBECUE CHAIN

$5 Million Assignment to Build Smokey Bones Brand

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Hoping to spur growth for its Smokey Bones Barbecue & Grill concept, Darden Restaurants named New York-based Lowe the chain's first-ever agency of record.

The Interpublic Group of Cos. agency will handle advertising and media planning and buying for the 4-year-old chain. Spending is estimated at less than $5 million.

Long-term goals
Since opening in 1999, Smokey Bones has doubled in size each year and now has 59 units. Darden plans to open between 25 and 30 restaurants a year with an eye toward becoming a $500 million brand with between 600 and 1,000 restaurants, a spokesman said. He estimated that media spending could boost growth by as much as 15%.

Darden is in a race with the likes of Famous Dave's and Red, Hot & Blue to establish Smokey Bones as the first nationally branded barbecue chain. Darden hopes to do for casual-dining barbecue what is did for seafood with Red Lobster and Italian with Olive Garden.

Darden has 672 Red Lobster units and 516 Olive Garden units.

First to market
"I think their strategy is to be preemptive in the market," said Ron Paul, president of consultant Technomic. He said that being first to market can add 10% to 20% to topline sales. "It means somebody else isn't going to [open a restaurant] within a three-mile radius of you."

Last month Famous Dave's named Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, Minneapolis, as its first agency of record. The company owns and operates 38 locations and franchises 54 additional units in 23 states. It also has awarded development agreements for an additional 151 franchised locations. The 10-year-old company last week reported same-store sales fell 3% in the first quarter, and forecast soft same-store sales through the second quarter

Privately held Red, Hot & Blue, a Memphis-style barbecue chain, has 34 units.

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