Alan Moore runs nearly 50 restaurants. Just a few years ago, this would mean millions of dollars invested in real estate, labor and other capital expenses, not to mention a complex operational strategy to keep things running smoothly. But in today’s day and age, this restaurant tycoon can oversee this myriad of brands with little more than a commercial kitchen, a strong marketing eye, and of course, a slew of delivery services that brings them to life.
“We created 4 brands 18 months ago and launched them. Burgers, tacos, pizza and the like. We came up with some cool names and launched them on Postmates and Doordash. That snowballed,” begins Moore, who not only runs these virtual restaurants but also commands a brick-and-mortar establishment, Cheebo in Hollywood. It was experimenting with the delivery platforms through Cheebo that led Moore to start these virtual brands and ultimately lead a consulting business for the space, Virtual Restaurant Consulting, with his brother, Paul.
“It’s a seismic shift and it’s consumer-led,” Moore said. The passion in his voice resonates through a thick English accent. “The delivery companies are taking over the whole world.”
He’s speaking to the rise of ‘virtual restaurants’ or restaurants that don’t actually sport dining rooms or even pick-up counters. Their physical presence is limited to a commercial kitchen space, and do 100% of their business through delivery platforms, such as Grubhub, Uber Eats, Postmates and DoorDash.
Moore sees virtual restaurants playing a pivotal role in the foodservice industry, and the delivery platforms completely changing the way that traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants structure their menus and operations.
“Running a virtual restaurant is no different than running a traditional restaurant, where you go to work everyday and nurture your business,” Moore said. “It’s not just creating a name and throwing it up on Postmates. You need to create the recipes, cost the menu, handle the photography, build it out of social media, and truly bring the virtual restaurant to life. You have to monitor sales, pull up product mix reports, look at your pricing. It’s not just fire and forget.”
But while complex, significantly lower up-front costs open the door to many aspiring restaurateurs looking to break into the field. And Moore has perfected the process of opening a virtual restaurant, to the point of creating a step-by-step guide for new and prospective owners.
“In 6 weeks, someone will come out with hands-on knowledge of exactly what needs to be done and will have 1 – 2 virtual restaurants ready for launch,” Moore said. He also noted that it was easier to manage multiple virtual restaurant brands rather than just one, claiming that a kitchen is better utilized when several concepts are online.
Virtual restaurants typically take an In-n-Out style approach, with hyper-focused menus that of revolve around a shortlist of core products. So instead of creating a single restaurant that serves burgers, fried chicken, sandwiches and mac ‘n’ cheese, you’d create four restaurants that specialize in each of those categories.
Of utmost importance, however, are several factors. Being transparent about the restaurant being a virtual restaurant, viewing delivery drivers as servers, and engineering your food for delivery are at the top of the list.
“You have to serve food that doesn’t just taste good out of the dining room, but also looks and tastes good after riding in the back of a Ford Fusion for 40 minutes,” Moore said. “Crispy fries will phase out. Crinkle-cut will become more popular because they stay good longer. We’re producing more spinach dishes than broccoli, because broccoli doesn’t last as long.”
This kind of engineering includes balancing beautiful photography and managing expectations.
“All the photography on the delivery platforms is on a plate, but course your food isn’t delivered on a plate…customers often feel like they’re getting less food than what they see in the picture, even though it’s the exact same amount. We’ve been playing around with how to package food so that customers are satisfied with portion sizes.”
Moore says the name of the game is high-margin items that deliver well. This formula helps mitigate the logistical challenges and costs of delivery.
“The old model of food costs of 30 – 35%, labor of 35 – 40%, etc. has gone out the window. A traditional restaurant is going to struggle working with the delivery apps,” Moore said. “Food cost and packaging together needs to be 22%.”
And it’s not just the cost structure that will change, in More’s view. He sees a future where in addition to virtual restaurants, brick-and-mortar restaurants will have entirely separate menus solely dedicated to delivery.
“Restaurant food wasn’t necessarily designed for delivery,” Moore said. “The restaurant will offer a menu for delivery that…will be designed differently and conceived differently.”
Find out more about Virtual Restaurant Consulting at VirtualRestaurantConsulting.com.
Big food companies across the country have been hit hard by what can only be described as a serious loss of trust by their consumer base. Coca Cola, Kraft, Nestle and Mondelez [parent company of Nabisco] are just a few food giants that have seen their CEOs resign. Granted, these companies are alive and well and likely to perform just fine moving forward, but their age-old model of mass-scale, low-cost production is not resonating like it did decades ago, back in the day when all you needed at a baseball stadium were hot dogs and nachos.
So what does this mean for restaurants? Big things, all revolving around modernization. All consumer trends right now point to the little guy, the mom-and-pop-ish, locally sourced, small-scale production center where business is made up of guests who know and trust the product. To many, ‘big food’ is synonymous with chemicals, additives, fillers and other elements that consumers are sick of putting into their bodies. A growing clientele is ready and willing to pay a premium for ingredients they trust. This means going to restaurants that embody these same qualities.
Each of these big food companies has extended great effort in building their product portfolios to include more ‘trusted’ brands. Kellogg, for example, recently purchased RX Bar, the ‘No BS’ protein bar maker, for a whopping $600 million. Why? In all likelihood, to help modernize the Kellogg brand with a product that has clearly resonated with a newer-age clientele. For restaurants, this means you may want to take a look at your menu mix and assess whether your approach truly appeals to your guests today.
Does this mean that as a restaurant you should drop everything, revamp your menu and change out your suppliers all at once? Of course not. Coca Cola will never relinquish its soda business because that’s the core of the brand—they’ve simply built onto that brand by acquiring names such as Odwalla and Zico. As a restaurant owner, this means taking a step back, assessing what’s truly at the core of your business, and finding simple ways to modernize so that you can retain your identity while coming across as new and revamped.
This may not always be a food-related change. I recently visited what many would call a local dive in Santa Monica. The place was sitting on prime real estate, just steps from the ocean, and served a modest-yet-comprehensive menu of quality food at low prices. A true gem amidst its over-hyped and over-modernized neighbors, but the atmosphere here was akin to a run-down Irish pub. What an outdoor patio and natural light would do to this place! Yes, this would entail a significant remodel, but at the end of the tunnel would emerge a new, improved version of this restaurant that nobody would consider a dive. A transformation like this leads to higher demand, and a resulting lift in the bottom line.
This restaurant is the exact kind of seasoned mom-and-pop establishment that stands to benefit the most from an internal assessment and immediate action steps to bridge the gap between product offering and consumer needs. Moving the focus back to the menu, if you see that an item, or even an entire category, isn’t selling like it used to, then it’s time to revise the ingredient mix or even just your guests’ overall perception.
If you hand-grind your burger meat and roll the patties daily, then promote the heck out of that process by detailing it on your menu and table collateral. If you source locally, make sure your guests know. If you notice that more and more guests are subbing out American cheese for gouda, then you’ve found a good replacement or upsell opportunity. The list goes on.
If big food companies relied on classic soda flavors, ready-made mac ‘n’ cheese and processed snacks now like they did ages ago, they’d be going the way Sears and K-Mart have gone by not innovating with the rise of online retail. To put it bluntly, it’s just a matter of getting with the times, but thankfully it can be done quite handily. It’s all a matter of observation and small steps to follow what your guests are looking for.
Next time you’re at the grocery store, browse through some of the healthier brands you’ve become familiar with and look to see if you can find a name like Mondelez or Kellogg nestled on the package. Another example of small steps and necessary modernization.
The art of plating has gone hand-in-hand with the craft of cooking for ages, but presentation is more important as ever in the restaurant world. The reason why can be summed up with a simple, yet alluring phrase: free marketing.
As rude as it may be at times, guests that obsessively photograph their food at the table are essentially handing you cash every time they snap and share a picture. Social media marketing can cost you big time; CPM [cost per mil, or cost per thousand impressions] may only be a few dollars, but think about how often guests can share photos of your food, to all of their friends and followers. If you want to reach the same number of people, those dollars add up fast.
With this in mind, some restaurants may want to encourage people to post their food photos on social media. There’s a few fun ways to do this…
Make your food beautiful
Seems like a no-brainer, but food that’s pleasing to the eye will not only be viewed as more delicious, but will inspire guests to take out those smartphones. No ingredient changes needed; all that may need to be done is some simple rearrangements on the plate. Follow some simple steps to do this:
Add color, depth and height
Just like any piece of artwork, food is enhanced with color. Radishes, carrots and herbs are easy ways to add vivid color to many savory dishes. A contrasting sauce, dabs of oil across the plate or a smear of spread are more common practices that chefs employ.
Depth and height are catalysts for social media-worthy food. Fries stacked log cabin-style, rack of lamb with crisscrossed bones and sandwiches with one half peeking over the other are all methods to add something special to traditionally two-dimensional items.
Use interesting plates and glassware
If you’re in the market for these materials, you may consider spicing things up beyond the basic circular plate and tumbler glass. Serving items that allow photos to capture more food and less ceramic are always preferable. Asymmetrical bowls, for example, can help capture photos of soup and salad. Specialty cocktails in specialty glasses command a premium presence.
Keep aspect ratios in mind
For the non-photographer, aspect ratio is the photo’s width-to-height ratio. Instagram, for example, works using square photos, or a 1:1 aspect ratio. This means that ‘rectangular’ items, such as three sliders and a basket of fries presented in one long row, are difficult to fit within the frame. A chef may want to consider presenting the sliders in a triangular pattern with the fries in the center or on one side.
Beer flights are another example. Bars will often serve beers in one long row, whereas shifting to a more square display cold capture more of the product in a shot.
Own a hashtag
Perhaps most important in your efforts to create a social media buzz is being able to monitor the results. How else are you going to know if the time and energy you’re dedicating is paying off? Come up with a hashtag and promote it around your restaurant—entryway, menus, table tents, receipts and other touch points are all prime real estate. Keep the following in mind when creating a hashtag.
By encouraging guests to use your hashtag when posting, they’re self-sorting their posts directly into a virtual folder that you can open up and monitor whenever you want. This approach to marketing is free and convenient…not a common find.
Then there’s the idea of creating social media contests to promote this marketing effort even further. That, however, is a conversation for another time.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.