- Virtual restaurants are invisible, but their numbers are growing during the pandemic.
- They are delivery-only brands that seem to be local restaurants or separate chains, but are owned by and operated out of the kitchens of giant chains.
- Some are more transparent about their true identity and origins than others.
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They’re invisible, yet they’re all around us. And their numbers are growing.
The pandemic has spawned a new species of restaurant: the virtual restaurant. Unfortunately, we’re not referring to nifty 3D virtual reality recreations of the dining out experience, although those exist too.
What we’re referring to is the kind of restaurant that only truly exists on delivery platforms, the Pasqually’s Pizzas of the world that seem to be friendly neighbourhood joints but are really operating out of the kitchens of big chain restaurants.
Some, like Just Salad’s “Health Tribes by Just Salad,” are clearly labelled for what they are: market-specific digital offshoots of bigger brands designed to game the increasingly competitive delivery landscape by targeting a singular menu item. Others, however, may make their true identities it less immediately clear to the hungry consumer.
These restaurants may not be who they seem.
In May, Applebee’s received public backlash after it came to light that a restaurant called “Neighbourhood Wings” on Grubhub and other delivery apps was actually run by Applebee’s.
Technically, the full name of the venture is “Neighbourhood Wings by Applebee’s,” but in some search results, the “by Applebee’s” part doesn’t appear. And on some delivery platforms, it’s omitted entirely from the restaurant name, making it easy enough to confuse “Neighbourhood Wings” for, well, a neighbourhood wing joint.
“At Applebee’s restaurants, wings are a top selling menu item. We launched Neighbourhood 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,” Applebee’s vice president of strategy and development, Scott Gladstone, told TODAY.
Also in May, a Reddit user sparked a wave of outrage after she discovered the pizza she thought she’d ordered from a local pizzeria had actually come from Chuck E. Cheese.
Now, unlike Applebee’s, which at least puts the big brand name in the small brand’s name, Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings makes no mention of Chuck E. Cheese. On delivery platforms like Seamless, there is no sign of Chuck E. Cheese’s name or branding. Only the most die-hard Chuck E. Cheese would instantly pick up on the fact that Pasqually is the name of the chef in the Chuck E. Cheese universe.
A Chuck E. Cheese spokesperson previously told Business Insider that Pasqually’s pizza is slightly different from Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza.
“Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings’ recipes use fresh, homemade pizza dough, just like Chuck E. Cheese, but it is a different pizza that features a thicker crust, extra sauce and new blends of cheeses and seasonings, giving consumers a more flavorful, more premium pizza experience,” the spokesperson said.
The newest addition to the virtual brand family is It’s Just Wings, a wings-oriented delivery brand that operates out of the kitchens of – you guessed it – Chilli’s restaurants. The virtual brand also operates out of some Maggiano’s, which is also owned by Chilli’s parent company, Brinker International.
Brinker did announce the launch of It’s Just Wings back in June, but otherwise, the wing brand’s only visible affiliation with Chilli’s and Maggiano’s is tucked quietly in the website’s “About” section. The restaurant’s Doordash page does not mention the affiliation.
And according to Brinker’s recent earnings call, fans have been eating It’s Just Wings up. Brinker CEO Wyman Roberts said in the earnings call that the brand-new brand was already generating over $US3 million in weekly sales.
Bad Mutha Clucka
The Hawaiian rolls on Bad Mutha Clucka’s fried chicken sandwiches may look familiar to Dog Haus fans. Actually, Bad Mutha Clucka’s fried chicken sandwiches will probably look familiar to Dog Haus Fans, because they’re basically Dog Haus’s fried chicken sandwiches.
In March, the founders of Dog Haus, a 50-plus location restaurant brand, announced the launch of Absolute Brands, currently comprised of six brands that operate primarily out of ghost kitchens. And Bad Mutha Clucka’s menu does feature some items not found on the Dog Haus menu, mostly different variations on the original sandwich.
Does this one look familiar?
Freiburger is almost too small to fault – there’s only one location – but that may change if unwitting burger lovers keep ordering Dog Haus’s burger through this virtual brand. Like Bad Mutha Clucka, Freiburger’s branding makes no mention of Dog Haus – even though Freiburger’s burgers are cooked in the same kitchens as Dog Haus’s food, and look eerily similar.