Editor’s note: Editors Roundtable is a periodic feature in which Restaurant Business Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Maze annoys the RB team with inane questions on the future of the industry. Today’s installment is on celebrity-fueled virtual brands.
Jonathan Maze: Virtual brands are all the rage these days. Some 100,000 of these things are out there, lurking on your phones and holed up in some random kitchen ready to pounce on your desire for burgers or chicken wings.
One of the most popular of these is MrBeast Burger, whose app continues to be among the top food-and-beverage apps on the Apple Store. It was created virtually overnight, appearing in 300 locations all at once in December. The popularity of the YouTuber known as “MrBeast” has helped generate considerable interest, and I’ve now devoted a column and an entire podcast episode to what all this means.
All kinds of celebrities come in and out of the food business, and now everyone from Guy Fieri to Carmen Electra to the rapper Tyga to a bunch of people I’ve never heard of are coming out with virtual brands. We’re guessing they’ll have, uh, varying degrees of success in these ventures.
This brings me to this week’s question: What celebrity would you want to see develop a virtual brand, for whatever reason. Bonus points if you can come up with a menu. We’ll start with the Restaurant Business Virtual Brand and Ghost Kitchen Editor Joe Guszkowski to get his views on this topic. Joe you clearly have opinions so let’s hear them.
Joe Guszkowski: Thanks Jonathan. So, I think virtual brands will need to do two things to survive long-term: Attach themselves to a well-known brand—either a celebrity like MrBeast or an existing restaurant brand—and serve decent food. The familiar face will get people to try the food, and if it’s good, they’ll order it again.
With that in mind, I tried to think of celebrities who are famous for their good taste. The first person I thought of was Martha Stewart (I guess I’m old?). She is a brand in and of herself and a trend-setter in a variety of areas, especially food. I think a lot of people would try a Martha Stewart virtual concept.
That said, her audience is somewhat limited. I don’t know how many Gen Zers or millennials—or men, for that matter—have subscriptions to Martha Stewart Living, and those groups make up a key delivery demographic.
That’s where Snoop Dogg comes in. The unlikely pals teamed up to create “Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party,” a cooking show featuring celebrity guests that is apparently going strong. Snoop is as beloved and relevant as ever, and no slouch when it comes to food, either: He published a cookbook in 2018.
The menu could feature favorite dishes from the show and even tie in other celebrities who appeared as guests.
What do you think, Pat? Would you order delivery from Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Diner, or is there another celeb you’d like to see go virtual?
Patricia Cobe: I might order from Martha and Snoop Dog if it was packaged beautifully as only Martha knows how and the food was inspired but had a little attitude.
That said, I think Meghan Markle and Prince Harry should launch a virtual restaurant concept. It would be an instant sensation and they really need more to do, now that they’ve given up their royal duties.
The menu would be very kid-friendly and healthy. I’m sure that’s what they’d want for baby Archie and his sibling-to-be. I could see a lot of fresh produce and California inspiration coming together in wraps, dips with veggies, artisan grilled cheese sandwiches and maybe some sustainably sourced fish and chips, just to get the British vibe in. Of course, everything would be organic and humanely raised.
The Duchess of Sussex herself supposedly follows a pretty plant-forward eating plan. Lots of salads, green juices, sushi and oatmeal. These can round out the menu.
Meghan and Harry’s name on a virtual concept would attract every demographic—millennial moms who want to be as good a parent as the Duchess of Sussex, baby boomers who love “The Crown” and everything royal, vegetarians looking for alternatives to wings and burgers, and Gen Zers who will try any new delivery-only restaurant that comes along.
Perhaps Meghan and Harry can supply Rolls-Royce limos to all their delivery drivers for a royal touch. What do you think Heather—lots of vegetarian choices here.
Heather Lalley: Ooh. This is a fun one! I would be first in line to order from a virtual restaurant concept helmed by Lizzo. The multi-talented and multiple Grammy-award-winning singer/rapper/songwriter/flutist! packs her Instagram stories with the beautiful catered vegan meals she enjoys at her mansion.
Lizzo went vegan earlier last year after being vegetarian for a number of years. With all of these virtual brands focusing on burgers and wings, there is plenty of space in the marketplace for a plant-based option fronted by someone as charismatic, influential and recognizable as Lizzo.
She already has a hit song called “Juice,” so maybe Lizzo could start her virtual brand with cold-pressed juices before branching out to vegan comfort foods? I bet it’d be Good As Hell.
Peter, are you ready to order from Lizzo’s virtual restaurant concept with me or do you have a better contender in mind?
Peter Romeo: I’d have to put my hair up and do my nails if I was going to throw some business Lizzo’s way. Certainly she must need the money (insert eyeroll here).
But you guys have missed the obvious next Col. Sanders. Think about it: What celeb would take to this market of mirrors and smoke more than the king of weirdness and nonconformity, Dennis Rodman?
His advantages are obvious. He could start with some of his true faves, then add a few Korean items made according to recipes provided by his pal, North Korean despot Kim Jong Un (the dishes were actually made by Kim’s mother, but she was deemed a danger to the state and has been erased from all records).
Best of all, Rodman would compete with Carmen Electra, his wife for nine days. (She’s already in the business, so don’t try nominating her, fellow ink-stained wretches.) And we know how Dennis rises to the competition.
Think of the marketing tie-ins: The concept could promote a different colored item every week, matched to the shade of hair (and possibly dress) that Rodman is sporting at any given high-profile moment.
Oh, yeah—we’re talking an idea worthy of betting the kids’ college funds.
Maze, I forget: Whom did you choose after the marriage amazingly collapsed, Carmen or Dennis?
The best part of going last in this particular exercise is I can tell all of you guys how wrong you really are. Sure, these were decent suggestions and we’d certainly hope some of them are considering virtual brands. But none of them beats the one I’m about to give you:
Krusty the Clown.
That’s right. The host of the children’s program-slash-washed-up star on the long-running television program “The Simpsons” is the name behind Krusty Burger. The brand is already established. It has generations of fans thanks to the fact that the show has been on the air since about the Stone Age.
Brands based on fictional characters have a long history in the restaurant business. Using one for a virtual brand would take it into a new generation.
And “The Simpsons” has a host of menu items that could easily occupy a virtual brand outside of the Krusty Burger (not to mention the Krusty Chicken Sandwich because this is 2021 after all and you need one of those, apparently).
The brand could also serve Duff Beer in locations with alcohol delivery or even a Flaming Moe. And I would die, probably literally, for some Tomacco.
So someone give me a Simpsons-based virtual brand. Please.