Once the virtual concepts were fully curated, they were intertwined with one Thirsty Lion kitchen after the other. As Castro explains, the most important part of managing five brands under one roof is being able to see it, understand it, and produce the food. To improve speed and accuracy, Thirsty Lion uses Chowly to transmit third-party delivery orders directly into the kitchen.
Every order that comes through is timed so that items—no matter the cooking procedure—are bagged at the same time and sent to either a delivery driver or customer. For example, if a guest orders a fried chicken dish that takes 12 minutes and an ahi poke bowl that requires four minutes, the back of the house will see the fried chicken meal first. They won’t see the poke bowl until it gets down to four minutes.
To further reduce complexity, the back of the house also shares ingredients among the brands.
“That’s one of the things that you have to really be careful of, otherwise you get ingredients all over the place, and then the stuff starts dying if you can't move fast enough,” Plew says. “And that was another thing that we did probably two or three weeks into this thing. We looked at data every day. We determine what's moving, what's not moving, where we're wasting all those things, and we started trimming those things off the menu before they ever got to the Thirsty Lion brand. So what we've gotten for Thirsty Lion is a really efficient brand that doesn't create a lot of waste. That's really important for us.”
After food preparation, the next concern was packaging. Castro notes when operators normally develop food, restaurants create a beautiful plate presentation so that people eat with their eyes. The main objective was to accomplish that feat, but inside a box. Castro says the team pored over hundreds of choices; the group wanted sustainable packaging, so that narrowed the field. The process included questions like “What does food look like in a box?” and “How does it travel?” The brand initiated some testing and continued to refine until it reached a complete package. Then it proceeded to add the proper logos and stickers to the bag, which is a whole other layer.
“The end result is people really like having the option,” Castro says. “Everybody wants something different. But if you could get it all in the same bag and pay for it on one bill, that's a pretty good deal, right? That's where we went with that.”
In terms of marketing, Plew says Thirsty Lion wanted to make sure integration ran smoothly before potentially opening the floodgates and crashing the system, so promotions were gentle on the front end. Eventually, the brand leveraged third-party platforms to advertise introductory-type specials to build trust with consumers.
The restaurant also cross-promoted the virtual concepts with its customer database, which includes roughly 100,000 loyalty members. Other strategies include driving customers back to Central Kitchen in each to-go bag, establishing public relations in each market, calling on 15 to 20 food blog influencers to spread the word, and sending direct mail to local communities.
“So it is really like launching a whole new food hall,” Plew says. “We would take the same marketing steps and leverage those assets—Instagram and Facebook, emails and texts, and flyers and PR—very pretty much like what we would do with the regular restaurant.”
The jury is still out on what will become of the virtual concepts once restaurants return to 100 percent seating. Central Kitchen began for two reasons—to take advantage of the kitchen space in downtown Portland and to form a bridge to the post-COVID world. But Plew says that within that journey, Thirsty Lion appears to have struck gold.
Do you keep them? Do you turn some of them off? Plew did note there’s a space next to the downtown Denver store that used to be a small quick-service spot. So do you take those virtual concepts and pull them out of Thirsty Lion and operate in that space instead? And what about college and corporate campuses, food halls, airports, and other nontraditional areas?
The point is, there’s viability. Other virtual restaurants are on the way, including a Mediterranean concept, a health-conscious brand, and a coffee/breakfast burrito idea to capture the morning daypart. Even beyond that, one of these plans may even transform into a secondary storefront brand behind Thirsty Lion.
Through necessity, Plew and Castro stumbled upon greatness.
“It was a lot of hours,” Castro says. “We tried a lot of food. I would cook all day long and John would eat and we spent an enormous amount of hours putting this thing together and beta testing it and blowing it out. But looking back, it’s almost miraculous to pull it together like that.”