Tech roundup: There are too many celebrity virtual brands

Celeb concepts are starting to feel like spaghetti thrown against a wall. Also, Reef buys a logistics company, Dickey's joins Franklin Junction and more.
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Photo illustration by Nico Heins

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For a good part of my life, Dwyane Wade was my favorite athlete. I grew up in Milwaukee and watched him take Marquette to the Final Four, and then rooted for him as he led the Miami Heat to the NBA championship in 2006. A Wade bobblehead still sits on the dresser of my childhood bedroom. I consider myself a D. Wade superfan. 

That said, I wouldn’t order a burger from him. 

Wade last week unveiled a virtual brand, D. Wade Burgers, with a company called Combo Kitchen, becoming the latest celebrity to pair their likeness with a popular food item and call it a restaurant.

Others include Guy Fieri, the “Cake Boss,” Mariah Carey, MrBeast, George Lopez, Wiz Khalifa and many, many more.

The strategy makes sense. Food delivery apps are loaded with options, so putting a familiar name in front of the word “burger” can help a brand stand out. The success of MrBeast Burger is a case in point.

But the more celebrity brands there are, the less unique each one becomes. There is something ephemeral about them, too—a sense that they were created quickly and could disappear just as fast—that doesn’t exactly inspire consumer confidence. 

D. Wade BurgersD. Wade Burgers offers five burger options, fries and blondies. / Photograph courtesy of Combo Kitchen

D. Wade Burgers feels particularly thrown together. At one point, his name was misspelled on Combo Kitchens’ website. The menu, which features burgers from cities where Wade has lived or played, is unimaginative (the “Chicago Burger,” for instance, is differentiated by pickle relish, one of the ingredients in a Chicago-style hot dog) and comes off as a not-so-subtle ad for Heinz, the brand’s sauce supplier.

Virtual brands’ pitch to restaurants is that they can provide a new revenue stream without requiring extra labor or operational complexity. It’s a good idea, and it’s working for at least some operators. But the glut of celebrity concepts feels like a whole lot of spaghetti thrown against the wall, and most of it won’t stick.

Reef bought a company to improve its delivery services. The operator of ghost kitchens and other logistics businesses last week acquired Bond, a tech company that enables same-day deliveries and returns. Bond will become the official operating system across Reef’s thousands of “logistics hubs” that offer things like food, groceries and retail items. Reef said the acquisition will improve customers’ experience and allow for faster delivery. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit is partnering with “host kitchen” company Franklin Junction. Franklin Junction will make Dickey’s brand and menu available to other restaurants as an off-premise-only add-on, in turn helping Dickey’s grow its brand. The 550-unit barbecue concept will debut inside a host kitchen this month and plans to have 25 such locations by the end of the year. Franklin Junction works with more than 500 host restaurants and has a roster of more than 20 partner brands. 

Food delivery services in California will have to be more clear about their fees. Gov. Gavin Newsom last week signed into law a bill that requires third-party delivery companies to include a full cost breakdown of each order for the restaurant and the customer. That includes the purchase price, customer fees, tips or gratuities, and a notice that the delivery company charges a fee to the restaurant. Restaurants can direct them to include the amount of that fee. The law also prohibits the companies from keeping any portion of tips or gratuities.

Uber Eats is testing mobile ordering at airports. The system would allow travelers to order, pay and pick up food from airport restaurants without having to wait in line. It’s being tested at Toronto Pearson Airport and will be introduced in some U.S. airports in the coming months, the company said. 

BentoBox launched a catering product. The new interface allows restaurants to accept pre-orders directly through their website, as well as manage incoming orders and create seasonal menus. BentoBox said the “customer-centric” system has a 98% checkout rate. It will be available in time for the holidays, typically a busy time for catering orders.

In case you missed it ...

TGI Fridays is opening 300 ghost kitchens with Reef.

A new ChowNow tool helps restaurants grow their online footprints fast.

Restaurant marketers got creative while Facebook and Instagram were down.

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