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Tech roundup: Virtual brands look to fill plant-based niche

They're moving quickly to grab space in the growing segment. Also, Toast now has a POS for fast-food places and PopChew launches a virtual brand tied to Snapchat.
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Photo illustration by Nico Heins

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Virtual brands seem to work best when they fill a niche. It could be an underserved daypart or a cuisine that’s hard to find in a given market. Uniqueness, in theory, might help an unknown concept stand out on delivery apps.

Plant-based food is becoming one of those niches. Today, Another Wing, the brand created by Reef and hip-hop artist DJ Khaled, said that it was partnering with plant-based CPG brand LikeMeat to add faux chicken wings to the menu. It’s one of quite a few virtual brands to do this recently. Nextbite is doing the same thing with MorningStar Farms, and Wow Bao developed a separate brand called Crispy Chick’n around Skinny Butcher’s plant-based protein. MrBeast Burger also offers an Impossible version of its burger, and Impossible Burger has its own virtual brand, The Impossible Shop.

Meanwhile, the popularity of plant-based foods appears to be growing. Sales of plant-based products grew more than 6% in 2021, according to a report by the Good Food Institute, Plant Based Foods Association and researcher SPINS, with meat in particular going strong. There is clearly demand for this stuff, but the space is still young enough that fast-moving virtual brands have an opportunity to fill it. 

A search for “plant based” on DoorDash, for instance, shows how they’ve made inroads in the category: Four of the top 10 results were virtual brands. (When I searched for a more popular item (burger), none of the top 10 options were virtual brands.)

I’d expect to see virtual brands continue to be aggressive in underpenetrated categories. We probably won’t see many more chicken wing brands, but there’s probably room for a pea-protein wing concept.

Toast unveiled a POS system specifically for QSRs. Toast for Quick Service is intended to give fast-food places more digital tools that will help speed up service. Features include mobile order and pay, kiosk ordering and loyalty tools. It’s a significant new product line for the company that has until now largely focused on the full-service and fast-casual segments.

Popchew is launching a virtual brand with a sports media company. SnapBack Kitchen is a collaboration with SnapBack Sports, which bills itself as “the largest sports Snapchat account in the world.” The virtual brand will offer chicken tenders, sandwiches and sauces for delivery from 37 U.S. locations—restaurants that have partnered with Popchew to prepare the food. The food brand will feature tie-ins with SnapBack content as well as giveaways and challenges designed to drive engagement. It’s the company’s first new brand since its $3.5 million fundraise last month.

Nextbite hired a director of supply chain. Dominic Calcagno previously spent more than a decade at supply-chain services company HAVI, where he managed parts of the supply chain for McDonald’s of North America. He’s the latest in a string of leadership hires at the virtual brand provider. 

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