With loads of restaurant kitchens sitting underused, big chains are developing virtual brands to boost sales. Is there an opportunity here for aspiring foodservice operators?
Not too long ago, many aspiring restauranteurs and chefs launched their new foodservice concepts with food trucks. These mobile restaurants allowed operators to get immediate sales feedback on their concept without the costs and hassles of a brick-and-mortar location.
Cut to 2020, and the food truck has largely disappeared, thanks to ghost kitchens. Enterprising foodpreneurs can now rent space in a commissary kitchen and launch their food brand online through delivery-only channels. This emerging foodservice opportunity has been gaining traction with both large chains and independents looking to grab a share of online food orders which have exploded due to the pandemic.
Restaurant companies like Brinkman International have leveraged underutilized capacity in their kitchens around the country as a resource for creating virtual brands with stand-alone identities and menus. With a tightly focused menu of wings, sauces, and fries, Brinkman’s virtual restaurant It’s Just Wings is on track to become a $150 million-dollar brand in the next year. Other large foodservice companies are quickly following the trend.
For individuals looking to break into restaurant ownership, creating a virtual brand holds a great deal of promise. Developing a virtual brand mitigates risk by allowing owners to stress-test their food and overall concept without the financial burden of a physical location. Renting space in a commercial kitchen is often a fraction of occupancy costs for a traditional restaurant space. Time to launch is much shorter and easier – no trying to find the “perfect” location with heavy foot traffic, and no build-out costs for a kitchen or dining room. Just create a small menu and a brand identity, and you’re off. It couldn’t be easier, right?
Launching a successful virtual brand, like any other foodservice operation, requires time and money spent in a number of key areas. First and foremost is the menu. Food items must be able to travel well and arrive in excellent condition since opening that box or bag will be the customer’s first impression of the brand. Delivery food integrity is also heavily dependent on packaging, which also must reinforce the brand’s commitment to safe and tamper-proof handling. Virtual brands would be wise to select packaging that honors food integrity as well as the overall brand. Before going “live,” it’s always a good idea to test your food and packaging through trial delivery runs.
Next, a virtual food brand must be adept at digital branding and marketing. It’s not enough to have a menu posted on a static web page. A virtual brand needs top-notch food photography, and vibrant social media feeds to attract customers. Third-party delivery services offer advertising and other promotional programs to help you get noticed on their platform. For a virtual brand, it’s paramount to understand the percentage fee structures each third-party delivery service demands, and work to negotiate the best position possible.
Finally, a virtual brand must do what any successful restaurant does – stand out from the crowd. In developing any foodservice concept, operators must determine what they can do that’s different and better than the competition. For example, It’s Just Wings is true to its name with its limited menu and wallet-friendly prices. To stand out amongst a growing number of competitors, any virtual brand must be able to capture the attention (and dollars) of diners by offering distinctive and approachable menu items.
For aspiring restaurant owners who want to create their ideal gathering space for their friends and community to enjoy, launching a virtual restaurant brand may not be the ticket. But for foodpreneurs who want to develop and test the financial viability of a concept quickly, virtual brands are a potentially lucrative option.