Tech roundup: Virtual brands get physical

Some restaurants are bringing their online-only concepts into the "real" world. Also, Outback has a new app, Nextbite launches more brands and Bobacino hires a chief boba officer.
Photo illustration by Nico Heins

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The whole idea behind virtual brands is that they are not restaurants in the traditional sense. Operators who use them don't have to develop a site, buy new equipment, hire additional staff or pay rent. 

But recently, some restaurants have started bucking that whole strategy by launching virtual brands and then bringing them into the physical world.

Dickey's Barbecue Pit, for instance, said last week that it planned to open a brick-and-mortar location of its virtual Wing Boss brand later this summer—complete with a full bar and televisions, according to my colleague Heather Lalley. And Ruby Tuesday is going to start serving some items from its virtual barbecue brand, Libby's, on its regular menu, my colleague Peter Romeo reported.

Chili's Bar & Grill, meanwhile, has hinted that it may launch its popular virtual brand, It's Just Wings, as a physical entity. 

Many have wondered what will become of virtual brands after the pandemic, when people return to on-site dining and (presumably) order less takeout. Using a virtual brand to test consumers' appetite for a potential brick-and-mortar version could be one scenario.

Dickey's seems to see it that way: It said a second virtual brand, called Big Deal Burger, will likely end up as a physical concept too.

"That is definitely our intention," CEO Laura Rea Dickey told Restaurant Business. "We always want to validate that we're going in the right direction."

Outback Steakhouse has a new mobile app. It features an easier ordering experience and fully integrates the steak chain's Dine Rewards loyalty program, and will soon offer enhanced curbside pickup, suggestions based on previous orders and improved menu viewing, the company said. The redesign was led by Gail Seanor, VP of digital for Outback parent Bloomin' Brands, and comes as the chain has tripled its off-premise volume during the pandemic.

El Pollo Loco and Ruby Tuesday partner with Brightloom. The data-driven marketing platform that helps restaurants engage with customers said its clients, which also include Evergreens and Jamba, have seen a 5.7% per-guest revenue lift since the product launched earlier this year. As more transactions shift to digital channels amid the pandemic, some restaurants are turning to companies like Brightloom to help make better use of that data. 

Seattle-based Brightloom is backed in part by Starbucks and led by the coffee chain's former head of digital, Adam Brotman.

Nextbite is launching two new, Mediterranean-inspired virtual brands. TZKI, a bowl concept, and the pizza-like Tza Tza Pitzas will join the company's roster of about a dozen other online-only brands. The menus focus on healthier options, featuring fresh veggies, homemade sauces and proteins like shawarma and lamb. Restaurants will be able to add the concepts to their operations in late August.

Tza Tza menu itemsPhotograph courtesy of Nextbite

Bobacino hired a chief boba officer. The company that makes an automated boba machine has named Stacey Kwong to the new role, also giving her the title of strategic advisor. As co-founder of  the self-serve boba concept Milk+T, she will bring the company considerable expertise in the bubble tea business.

POS provider Squirrel unveiled its first cloud-based system for independent restaurants. Designed with ease of use and flexibility in mind, the Squirrel Cloud POS can integrate with restaurants' other hardware and software partners, including third-party delivery services. It also includes mobile tablets for servers that allow them to send orders directly from the table, as well as payment processing, menu management and analytics software.

In case you missed it ...

Seamless will cease to exist under new owner Just Eat Takeaway.

Virtual brand company Acelerate raised $14.4 million.

DoorDash and Grubhub are suing San Francisco over its delivery fee cap.

Crave Hospitality will license its virtual food hall software.

Consumers say Chipotle has the best online ordering experience.

Grubhub is promising diners the lowest possible delivery price.

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