Your Next Favorite Restaurant Might Not Be a Restaurant
Jon Dominick Querolo 乔恩·多米尼克·奎罗洛
At Chili's and Maggiano's， the buzz is about their booming new side hustle-It's Just Wings. Same at Applebee's， where its startup， Neighborhood Wings， is doing a brisk business.
Both are online-only ventures that the chains quickly set up in hundreds of their kitchens-fresh takes on a business that the industry likes to call digital restaurants. The push into this model was tepid for years， but the pandemic created an urgent scramble to find new customers and put idle kitchen staffs back to work in a bid to revive a sector among the hardest hit by months of social-distancing and rolling lockdowns.
Additional chains， like Chuck E. Cheese， have started similar online brands. And just last week， Chipotle debuted a “digital-only” restaurant that bears its name， but only takes web orders and has no dining room. They've been joined by smaller operators who have a growing， easy-to-use infrastructure. One company， The Local Culinary， has eliminated the need to come up with a concept by franchising out 50 established digital brands.
Conventional wisdom has been that once the pandemic fades， people will flow back into eateries. But Americans are cooking more， especially younger adults. Consumers have invested in their kitchens， splurging on breadmakers and deep freezers. And for nine months， they've turned eating out occasions into ordering in-what the industry calls “off-premise.” Across the U.S.， which is seeing daily Covid cases hit new highs， sit-down dining is still down more than half from what it was a year ago， according to data from OpenTable.
Serving food without a dining area isn't new-pushcarts and food stands have been around for centuries. But what's different today is that a mix of technology， abundant commercial space and increasing delivery speed from third-parties like Grubhub， Uber Eats and DoorDash have made expansion easier and cheaper.
Since luring diners doesn't matter， kitchens can be set up in a basement， warehouse or second floor. If you already have kitchens， like Chuck E. Cheese， which launched digital brand Pasqually's Pizza and Wings during the pandemic， the space is already paid for.
Given the economic incentives of lower operating costs， Americans' love of immediate gratification and that Covid may have permanently changed eating habits， it's not hard to see a future where the next McDonald's or TGI Fridays invests little in tables and waitstaff and instead seeks an advantage by spending on online advertising， digital bells and whistles and making better food at lower prices.
What's happening in restaurants mirrors the broader retail industry， where digital startups became national players quickly thanks to the reach of the internet and advancements in targeting consumers through digital marketing， like social media. Instead of taking a decade to gain customers across the country， they did it in a few years. Now virtual restaurants， started by established chains and entrepreneurs， are trying to replicate that.
For other chains， birthing a virtual concept has proven to be a quick and cheap way to target a new demographic， an issue that every legacy chain faces. In the past， such an effort would have meant spending oodles on marketing or building out a fleet of locations.
Richard Leteurtre， chef and owner of Bistro 1902， signed up with The Local Culinary after the pandemic temporarily shuttered his restaurant in Hollywood， Florida. His French cuisine doesn't hold up well when delivered， leaving him in a bind. But after a month， the digital brands he made food for accounted for about a quarter of his sales.
“It's a lot of work at the beginning， a lot of prep， a lot of mise en place. It's not easy money，” said Leteurtre， who has worked in restaurants for a quarter century. But “it's a part of the future.”