With governments shutting down indoor dining, restaurants—both in the quick-service and full-service segments—made a hard pivot toward convenience and delivery. As the old saying goes, necessity breeds innovation, and that has led to an age of virtual brands.
Sometimes called delivery-only or digital-only, these concepts are housed in a brick-and-mortar kitchen, but are only available through off-premises. Oftentimes, the virtual concept sells menu items that aren't usually highlighted in regular stores. For example, Bad Daddy's, a spot known for burgers, created Bad Mama's Chicken to show off its hand-breaded chicken. In addition, delivery-only brands usually offer selections that aren't available on a dine-in menu.
Here are 14 restaurants capitalizing on consumer trends with their version of a virtual brand.
Brinker International, parent of Chili's and Maggiano's, used its massive scale to roll out It's Just Wings to more than 1,000 restaurants in June. The company has tested the new brand since November 2019, working on cooking methods, sauces, and partnering with DoorDash to scale. It’s Just Wings features 11 sauces, such as truffle hot sauce and ponzu sauce. Additionally, curly fries are included in every order at no additional cost. Fried Oreos is a dessert option as well.
CEO Wyman Roberts estimated in August that it is totaling more than $3 million per week in sales—a highly incremental boost. That equates to comps growth in the low-single to mid-single digits. The company expects it to become a $150 million business.
Brinker closely monitored guest satisfaction levels of Chili’s and Maggiano’s customers, as well as sales figures at the two chains, to see if the virtual brand has hampered operations. Roberts indicated that so far, there haven't been any issues.
Smokey Bones has used the demand for convenience to elevate two virtual brands, The Wing Experience and The Burger Experience. Both were originally launched in 2019 in partnership with Uber Eats. Now, each concept is sold out of all brick-and-mortar stores and the ghost kitchen in Chicago. The virtual brands showcase Smokey Bones’ top selling burgers and wings, including unique recipes created specifically for each virtual restaurant brand.
At the end of November, The Wing Experience re-launched with dedicated packaging, new boneless wings, a dedicated online ordering and delivery platform, and 50 flavor offerings. The menu features Jumbo smoked and Jumbo traditional bone-in wings, new crispy boneless wings, and new crinkle cut fries.
The Burger Experience features a variety of premium half pound burger options, including a build-your-own burger as well as special signature burgers such as The Big Kahuna, The Experienced Burger and The Keto all of which can only be found on The Burger Experience.
Bad Daddy’s recently rolled out its first virtual brand, Bad Mama’s Chicken, which features wings, tenders, sides, and milkshakes. It began in three kitchens and has since expanded into 15 stores.
CEO Ryan Zink says he’s not prepared to publicly discuss the company’s internal goals for the virtual concept, but he did note Bad Daddy’s will look to expand Bad Mama’s Chicken into more units if certain sales percentages are reached. The chain will likely launch the delivery-only brand in units that have shut down dining rooms. Part of the decision process will also look at how business is performing in each restaurant.
Zink believes the chain holds its own when it comes to the chicken category. "We think we do them as well, if not better, than most of our competition. Because like our beef, our chicken is all fresh. We do the cooking in-house. We hand bread our chicken tenders," Zink says.
Virtual concept Jolene’s Wings & Beer kicked off in November across Lazy Dog’s entire system, which spans 39 locations in seven states.
Though Jolene’s shares the same quality commitment as its sister restaurant, the menu is unique to the concept and features eight flavors: Nashville Hot, Buffalo, Kung Pao, Sweet Chili, Cajun Lime, Smokey BBQ, Garlic Parm, and Naked. Shareable sides include the classic wing accompaniments like onion rings, coleslaw, but with an elevated twist; sweet potato tots are spiced up with chipotle ranch and fries find new dimension with umami or Cajun seasoning.
Jolene’s was able to roll out relatively quickly thanks to an existing pipeline of people and resources, as well as economies of scale. Jolene’s shares kitchen space and staff with Lazy Dog; plus the menu utilizes existing sauces and other ingredients. CEO Chris Simms indicated that it could one day be a brick-and-mortar, but for now it’s a matter of riding out the COVID pandemic.
Bloomin’ Brands, the parent of Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba's Italian Grill, launched Tender Shack in September in its home market of Tampa, Florida. Bloomin’ activated the brand out of a Carrabba’s on DoorDash. The menu includes combos, tenders, sandwiches, “party tenders,” signature sauces, fries and desserts, and drinks. The Nashville Hot AF Tender Sandwich features a crispy chicken tender sandwich on brioche bun with housemade pickles, shredded lettuce, and signature Tender Shack sauce while the “party tenders” section offers 20 seasoned tenders or Nashville Hot AF tenders.
It also showcases six sauce options—a signature flavor, Carolina Gold BBQ, Ginger Soy Glaze, Buffalo Parmesan, Buttermilk Ranch, and Honey Mustard. A $1 cookie is the lone dessert for now, while seasoned fries are $2.
In October, Tender Shack moved outside of Florida to four Texas markets (Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio); four in Louisiana (Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Metairie, and Shreveport); two in Kansas (Kansas City and Wichita); Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Independence, Missouri.
Talks of a virtual brand date back almost two years ago for Famous Dave’s. The ideation turned into reality when the brand launched Hayward’s Hen House in the fall. It’s live on DoorDash, Postmates, Grubhub, and soon, Uber Eats. The brand focuses on chicken and is named after Hayward, Wisconsin—where Dave Anderson opened the first Famous Dave’s in 1994.
There’s a Hayward Crispy Chicken Breast Sandwich and Hand-Breaded Hen Strips. Additionally, the concept features three beef burgers, two desserts, and canned beverages.
By mid-October, it was operating out of nine Famous Dave’s. CEO Jeff Crivello says there isn’t enough data yet to decide if Hayward’s Hen House is worth expanding to all 125 locations. But there’s certainty enough to plot next steps. There will likely be a version 2 and 3 before Famous Dave’s makes the ultimate call. Crivello says it’s required very minimal changes in-store to bring the virtual brand to life.
Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings is named after a member of Munch's Make Believe Band. The pizza uses similar ingredients as Chuck E. Cheese, but differentiates itself with a thicker crust, extra sauce, and new blends of cheese and seasonings. The brand also added Giant Cheesy Bread, Twice Baked Wings, and an Iced Brownie.
The brand started with Grubhub in March and added Uber Eats at the end of June. In July, DoorDash was onboarded. Chuck E. Cheese CMO Sherri Landry said in the summer that Pasqually’s represented about 10 percent of sales.
Landry explains that Chuck E. Cheese caters to younger kids while Pasqually’s is the ideal option for the millennial and Generation Z customer. "It ultimately allows people who may have grown out of the ‘I want to go to Chuck E. Cheese’ phase to still indulge in a magnificent food item in the pizza and the wings and desserts that we offer," Landry says.
Wings of New York is a virtual concept offering New York style wings as well as Harlem-style chicken and waffles. The roll out of this concept will only be available through third-party delivery initially in the New York Tri-State area, with expansion plans across the U.S. coming soon.
Wings of New York will offer customers a variety of menu options including wings and tenders a la carte, wings and French fry combos and Harlem-style chicken and waffles. The brand will offer over a dozen different wing sauces ranging from Classic Buffalo and Creamy Mild Buffalo to Carolina Reaper and Ghost Pepper, as well as a signature Buffalo sauce created by culinary consultant and James Beard Award Winner Mark Miller. The menu also features two waffle dessert options—a Waffle Sundae and a Waffle Shake.
The brand, which will utilize Nathan’s Famous kitchens as their Wings of New York ghost kitchens, has launched on Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub, and Postmates.
The Milwaukee Bucks entered the virtual market with Cream City Cluckery, a chicken tender brand open for pickup and delivery.
After analyzing the local competition, the next step was building a simple menu that could go live quickly. The process was led by Senior Executive Chef Kenneth Hardiman, who went through several iterations of breading, size, and sauces. The team held tastings and continued to narrow choices. Within the first 12 days, the brand knew what the original recipes would be.
The brand surpassed its month-long revenue goal in the first week. The concept achieved a profit in its first month of business, and has continued to do so in the following weeks. Cream City added grilled tenders as an alternative to fried items and onboarded buffalo-style tenders that are marinated in a buffalo mix for 24 hours. The menu also includes a chicken sandwich, beer-battered cod, mac and cheese, tater tots, biscuits, desserts, and beer.
Sam Fox, founder of Fox Restaurant Concepts, is bringing virtual brand Fly Bye to Central Phoenix on December 9. The concept serves buttermilk dipped, hand-breaded, chicken tenders that can be tossed in spicy buffalo or the signature “Poppin Asian” sauce. Customers may also dunk it in Culinary Dropout's cheese fondue and nine other house-made dips. The menu also features slow-cooked wings and Mozarella sticks.
Fly Bye will also have Detroit-style square pan pizza. “We spent a lot of time getting the dough just right,” says Fox. “When you bite into this pizza the crust is airy, the center is cheesy, and the edges are perfectly crunchy." The brand will operate out of the Yard, a converted motorcycle garage.
Additionally, the restaurant group plans to open a takeout-only version of fast-casual Flower Child, which serves vegetarian, vegan, and paleo dishes. The news comes more than a year after the Cheesecake Factory purchased Fox Restaurant Concepts for $353 million.
Neighborhood Wings by Applebee's is testing in 700 restaurants in partnership with Grubhub, according to Applebee's President John Cywinski.
"We've kind of dipped our toe in the water here in this initial 700 restaurant pilot. We have some very good learning, won't share results," Cywinski noted during Applebee's Q3 earnings call in late October. "I will tell you that the learning is leading us to fundamentally reposition in terms of relevance and menu and branding."
The menu includes twice-fried chicken wings, boneless wings, chicken tender dippers, and sides such as chips and salsa, onion rings, fries, Mozzarella sticks, mac and cheese, and pub pretzel & beer cheese dip.
Scott Gladstone, Applebee's vice president of strategy and development, told Today.com in May, "We launched Neighborhood Wings by Applebee's on GrubHub to make it even easier for guests to get their wings fix and to give us the opportunity to test out new items made for wing lovers that aren't on our main menu."
Chef Bill Kim’s Pizza & Parm Shop, a new virtual restaurant based out of the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, opened Wednesday. The menu highlights Detroit-style pizza, along with a classic chicken parmesan entrée and chicken parmesan sandwiches. Salads such as a chopped Caesar salad and wings are available, as well. It's available exclusively through DoorDash.
A month prior to Pizza & Parm Shop's launch, Cornerstone debuted Chef Bill Kim’s Ramen Bar, also located in Oak Brook. The menu includes Dumplings, Lemon Chicken Ramen, Korean BBQ Mushroom, Al Pastor Ramen and more. Both Ramen Bar and Pizza & Parm Shop represent new restaurant concepts and menus that aren't available in Cornerstone and Kim’s portfolio of restaurants.
"Every restaurateur and entrepreneur needed to get more creative than ever this year,” says Danny McGowan, COO of Cornerstone. “We are thinking beyond the four walls of our restaurants and utilizing all parts of that space."
Virtual Dining Concepts launched its first brand, Wing Squad in February. Since the summer, it's been a celebrity takeover with the roll out of Tyga Bites ( Hip-Hop Artist Tyga) in August, and Mario's Tortas Lopez (Actor Mario Lopez) and Pauly D's Italian Subs ( TV Personality DJ Pauly D) in December.
Tyga Bites offers crispy, oven-baked chicken bites while Mario's Tortas Lopez features an assortment of tortas, like Grilled Steak, Grilled Chicken, and Plant-Based Chorizo. Pauly D's Italian Subs includes a Pork & Peppers Sub, Roast Beef Sub, Turkey Pesto Sub, Spicy Capicola Sub, and more.
Virtual Dining Concepts is co-owned by Robert Earl, who also oversees Planet Hollywood, Buca di Beppo, Bertucci’s, Earl of Sandwich, Chicken Guy!, Brio Italian Grille, and Bravo Italian Kitchen. Each virtual brand is available exclusively on Grubhub for any independent and chain restaurants. Virtual Dining Concepts provides necessary packaging, food ingredients, and manages the menu listing on Grubhub.
In March, at the beginning of the pandemic, Dog Haus launched The Absolute Brands, virtual restaurant group featuring Dog Haus and several virtual concepts, including Bad-Ass Breakfast Burritos, Bad Mutha Clucka, Plant B, Frieburger, and Huevos Dias.
According to Quasim Riaz, one of the founders of Dog Haus, since The Absolute Brands’ launch, the company has seen a huge spike in delivery sales. One unit saw a sales increase of more than 300 percent after the implementation of the virtual concepts.
Bad-Ass Breakfast Burritos, Bad Mutha Clucka, and Plant B are available at virtual kitchens and most brick-and-mortar locations. Franchisees can choose to use their current Dog Haus restaurant to serve The Absolute Brands’ virtual concepts, a model the chain refers to as "host kitchens."
“When the pandemic happened, we had all these brands all ready to go to the virtual kitchen,” says Dog Haus cofounder André Vener. “We were going to do it in the brick and mortar in 2021 sometime. But we decided, hey, let everybody have a chance to do it."