I know you are asking yourself, how does this work? What is a “virtual” brand – is it real? What is virtual food? A ghost kitchen? If I drive over or have it delivered, will there really be a bag waiting with my name on it? Good news, the answer to all these questions is YES!
What Exactly is a Virtual Brand?
Let’s start with what a virtual brand actually is. A quick Google search provides this definition… “A virtual brand is one that exists digitally, but with no physical presence. … Virtual brands have been around for a few years, but the global pandemic, with its resulting forced restaurant closures and massive increase in food delivery, has seen them proliferate rapidly in 2020.” For anyone wanting to order some lunch, dinner, late night snack or cookies at 2am, there’s an app for that and someone is working behind the scenes to satisfy your hunger pangs.
Tech Meets Food
Foodservice design covers all areas of the kitchen, front and back of house — drive through and pick up counters included. Food is the glue that keeps us all together. People enjoy being with one another around the table sharing a meal together, be it at the restaurant or at home.
While the pandemic intensified the need to pivot to different foodservice options, tech had already exploded on the convenience-to-life balance ratio, forcing the savvy restaurant operator to make changes to their business models to retain existing customers and build business. Many have adapted their dining rooms to pick-up areas or curbside service or to new menu items that are more travel container-friendly.
Virtual brands are providing operating kitchens a way to offer customers new and different options, revitalizing the restaurant industry at a time when new movement is critical to the industry’s future success. But how is this done?
The Kitchen Design….
How do we get from the “virtual” idea of producing the food to the “actual” process of getting the food into the customer’s hands? This is where the foodservice designer steps in.
Designing a kitchen and planning for a virtual brand means we must plan for the virtual kitchen or ghost kitchen with some of the tightest budgets, equipment shortages, and time frames that are ever decreasing.
A virtual kitchen is a current restaurant that is making and selling a brand that may not have their own brick and mortar storefront as an additional service point via delivery services (by app or online ordering portals) … think DoorDash, UberEats, GrubHub, etc.
A ghost kitchen is a professional facility that creates delivery-only meals for various brands and packages them for delivery to off-site facilities. They have actually been around for ages; you might just not have recognized them. Your favorite Food Truck will most likely be required to prep for their day in a commissary kitchen (a ghost kitchen). Meal prep services are in this same category. They are required by law to work in a certified kitchen that is inspected by the local Environmental Health Department for sanitation and preparation practices approved by local and state jurisdiction.
It’s All Relative
Designing for the virtual brand is an essential part of planning for your client’s budget, space and flow to the kitchen itself. Does this brand need special equipment to achieve the final product – a tandori oven, for example? Does it require a large number of sauces that have to be freshly prepared everyday? What would that entail for the refrigeration needs? A ton of questions come to mind about the menu for the brand and every one of them plays into how we would layout the kitchen space to accomodate it. Is Foodservice Design relevant to Virtual Brands? Absolutely!
Distribution Plays a Part
One of the latest ways many across the country are approaching the distribution of the huge growth in online orders are “cubbies”, food lockers, and an old friend call AutoMat. In New York, circa 1936 , when the world was young and growing with the first thoughts of touch screen smart phones, people were grabbing some lunch or dinner from a wildly crazy new concept, the Horn and Hardart AutoMat. This was automatic vending at its finest for the times. The last one in operation closed in 1991. Check out this image…
Look vaguely familiar to what we see today…minus the hat and overcoat?
Today, while our old friend took a sabbatical from popularity for several decades, the concept is back, just a little more streamlined and certainly more high-tech. Behind every food locker or cubbie, however, a ghost kitchen exists to provide the food offerings filled by kitchen staff, much like postal workers fill individual post office mailboxes from the central distribution facility. Brands are able to fullfill orders quickly and in a timed fashion to ensure the quality of the product.
Another method of distribution is the food hall, the fastest growing trend of the last decade. Virtual brands can feature new items on their menus without a huge roll-out, while achieving maximum exposure to the throngs of people looking for a quick bite in a place with ever-changing options. The design of these spaces generally is compact as the hall will give the vendor a designated amount of space to create their concept. The kitchens that help support these concepts are geared for larger boxing/assembly areas. Technology infrastructure for orders and additional sanitation protocols are all taken into consideration. How far away is this kitchen from the hall? Available space to create and/or service the kitchen that is supporting the virtual brand is a very large factor in how well the brand will be able to perform.
Design is Paramount for Success
The stream of new ideas is endless. Foodservice design is needed as the partner in virtual brand evolution to ensure every step forward is a success.
By: Lisa Paige-Pretorius, Project Manager | Charlotte