How do you market a restaurant that doesn’t physically exist?
That is the challenge for marketers tasked with getting the word out about virtual concepts--restaurants that live online only, with food produced out of other restaurants’ kitchens for delivery and takeout.
Should you identify an offshoot with its parent concept, or risk customers finding out themselves and feeling duped? Should you rely on third-party marketplaces to host the brands, or build dedicated websites for each?
These are just a couple of the questions marketers are tackling. Here’s how Smokey Bones, Dog Haus, Wow Bao and Chicago bakery-cafe Baker Miller approach marketing their virtual concepts.
Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill
Virtual brands: The Wing Experience and The Burger Experience
Smokey Bones was at the forefront of the virtual brand trend when it launched The Wing Experience and The Burger Experience in 2019 with Uber Eats.
The Florida-based casual-dining chain identified markets where there was unmet demand for those items and has continued to tweak the brands as demand evolves. It added boneless wings and fries to its wing concept, for instance, and this week rolled out a total revamp of The Burger Experience with a new menu and lower price point.
Smokey Bones treats each brand as its own entity, choosing not to highlight their connection to the parent brand. The idea is to generate incremental sales from guests who might not be regular Smokey Bones customers.
“We’re certainly not hiding it, but it’s not a lead in the messaging,” said Nichole Robillard, the chain’s recently hired VP of marketing.
The chain has not been doing much marketing of its own for the Wing and Burger Experience during the pandemic, Robillard said, leaning on promotions through third-party platforms to build momentum. But with the recent launch of dedicated websites for each brand, Smokey Bones is now ramping up its marketing via social media and paid promotions on Facebook, Instagram and Google, said CEO James O’Reilly.
Over time, Smokey Bones has adjusted the brands to help them stand out in the ever-expanding crowd of virtual wing and burger concepts. The Wing Experience offers 50 flavors of boneless, smoked and traditional wings, Robillard said, and the new-look Burger Experience is intended to hit a sweet spot between casual-dining and quick-service options.
“It’s always a challenge when the marketplace is cluttered, but we believe we really have a differentiated experience and offering,” Robillard said.
Virtual brands: Bad Ass Breakfast Burritos, Bad Mutha Clucka, Plant B, Huevos Dias, Big Belly Burgers, Jail Bird
Dog Haus differs from Smokey Bones in one key element of marketing its six virtual brands: It plays up their connection to Dog Haus every chance it gets.
“It’s our product, our same high-end, quality food,” said Andre Vener, partner with the California-based hot dog chain. “Dog Haus is already successful, why wouldn’t you try their sister company?”
All marketing materials for the brands include the phrase “Powered by Dog Haus,” and each order comes with a postcard that cross-promotes other concepts under the company's Absolute Brands umbrella.
But each brand is treated as its own thing, with a unique identity.
“You can’t just take a name and throw up four hamburgers and turn on the [delivery service providers],” he said. “You won’t be there for long. It’s just not gonna work.”
To get the word out about its virtual brands, Dog Haus markets to its existing audience on social media and with email blasts and text messages. And it has also learned how to expand its reach on third-party delivery platforms with paid promotions.
Offering something like free delivery, for instance, will generate more orders, which in turn pushes the brand higher on an aggregator’s site, Vener said.
“As soon as you have that algorithm of 100 [orders] a day, you’re naturally getting exposure and being pushed up to the top,” he said. “Then you remove those deals and let natural momentum do the work for you.”
New virtual brands with fewer customers should be investing in those promotions, he said.
“If you’re a brand new brand and you just turn it on, you’re not gonna ever have orders.”
Virtual brand: Wow Bao
Unlike Smokey Bones and Dog Haus, Wow Bao has been expanding virtually under its own name, partnering with restaurant operators across the country to produce its menu of Asian baos and bowls out of their kitchens.
While the 18-year-old brand has a strong reputation to lean on, it’s still entering new markets where people might not be familiar with it. So it tries to engage new customers in those areas who are similar to existing ones.
“What we do is we take our 100,000-plus-person email database and upload it within a 3- to 5-mile radius of the operator. And then we’ll do targeted Facebook and Instagram ads for six weeks to lookalike customers that match those people,” said CEO Geoff Alexander on an upcoming edition of Restaurant Business’Talks from the Top series.
That costs about $1,000, he said, which Wow Bao splits with the restaurant.
As it builds up its customer database, it’s particularly focused on collecting zip codes to aid in future marketing efforts. “If we can get a certain demographic based on a certain location, we can target even better,” Alexander said.
Wow Bao is also building its own ordering platform so that it can start collecting more customer data, but has found third-party delivery promotions to be an effective driver as well.
“The best way to do it is to run in-app promos inside the third-party delivery platforms,” he said. “20% off or buy one, get one free or something like that, all helps the presence.”
Virtual brand: Miller Bagel
The Chicago bakery-cafe worked with a company called Future Foods to launch five delivery-only brands during the pandemic. The menus were based on ingredients Baker Miller already had and fit within concepts and branding that was predetermined by Future Foods, such as bagels and breakfast burritos.
Ultimately, only the bagel concept survived, and bagels have become a significant part of Baker Miller’s own menu.
But at first, it chose not to tie the virtual concepts to the parent brand, said owner Dave Miller.
“I knew that if I wrote, ‘Hey, these are some cloud kitchen concepts that we’re doing’ … what I felt was that we would have no flexibility [because] people already have an expectation of us and what we do,” he said. Baker Miller is a farm-to-table concept, but that wasn’t the case for all of the virtual brands.
Plus, Miller wanted to see if they could attract new customers outside of Baker Miller’s regular group, which they did.
Future Foods provided some savvy marketing support, including a tactic designed to make deliveries more cost-effective: If Baker Miller’s burrito concept got a sale on Postmates, for instance, Future Foods would run a special on the bagel concept in the same hour, hoping that both orders could be delivered in one trip by the same driver.
Baker Miller has since split with Future Foods to run Miller Bagel on its own, toggling it on and off depending on demand.
“We track it every day based on if we have enough labor to keep up,” Miller said.