“The allure of ghost kitchens during the peak of the pandemic may have faded, but the original idea still holds potential,” affirms renowned food reporter, John Doe. While the initial surge of delivery-only, virtual restaurants captivated audiences as platforms like DoorDash and GrubHub thrived in response to lockdown measures, many of these ventures have now lost their luster. In fact, Uber Eats recently purged thousands of digital “restaurant” listings, aiming to streamline its application. It is no wonder that the entire concept now appears to be a figment of our quarantine-induced imagination.
However, there is an alternate incarnation of the ghost kitchen concept that offers a more realistic and pragmatic approach. Rather than a complete reinvention of dining habits, this version involves the strategic deployment of existing resources, coupled with meticulous attention to the timeless principles of branding. A shining example of this new paradigm is the recently launched virtual chain known as TenderFix, which focuses on delectable chicken-centric cuisine. While the success of this specific endeavor remains to be seen, it serves as a blueprint for a post-ghost kitchen strategy.
Diving into the intricacies of TenderFix, we discover a captivating facet—TenderFix by Noah Schnapp. Noah Schnapp, recognized for his portrayal of Will Byers in Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things, plays the role of a “partner” in TenderFix. With a penchant for chicken sandwiches, plant-based chicken alternatives, and late-night delivery—a trifecta that resonates with the TenderFix brand—Schnapp’s involvement adds a touch of celebrity appeal.
The meteoric rise of ghost kitchens during the peak of the pandemic was not driven by traditional brand awareness strategies. Instead, it relied on flooding the market with a multitude of virtual restaurants sporting nearly identical menus and search-optimized names like “Omelette Farm” and “Pizza of New York.” However, this approach aroused consumer suspicion, as they encountered unfamiliar establishments with deceptive facades. Such enterprises did not garner the same press coverage and recognition as TenderFix.
Interestingly, the ascendancy of ghost kitchens did not negate the fact that consumers are naturally drawn to familiar names, as exemplified by MrBeast Burger. This YouTube sensation, hailed as one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2023, capitalized on the ghost kitchen phenomenon by launching a delivery-only burger brand available in hundreds of kitchens nationwide. Leveraging his distinctive personal brand, MrBeast successfully established a virtual fast-food concept with unprecedented speed. Collaborating with Virtual Dining Concepts, a prominent ghost kitchen development firm connected to several Italian chains, MrBeast Burger reportedly sold 1 million burgers within its first three months. This triumph further fortified the MrBeast brand, and the concept, with its simplistic menu, has since expanded to encompass 1,700 virtual locations. This demonstrates that offering consumers a specific brand to seek out is more effective than relying on generic hunger for a particular food category.
In the case of TenderFix, celebrity-centric branding is complemented by an additional strategic move—highlighting its association with an established food brand. The range of plant-based chicken alternatives, including sliders and tenders, is meticulously linked to MorningStar Farms, a renowned name in the realm of alternative meat.
Another vital player behind TenderFix, whose brand remains discreet in promotional materials, is IHOP. TenderFix’s delectable fare is prepared and delivered from over 1,000 IHOP locations. While the heyday of ghost kitchen mania witnessed an influx of plans for renting or developing new spaces, the landscape has shifted. As the pandemic subsided, dining out experienced a resurgence, and the drive-through concept remained steadfast.
From the inception of the ghost kitchen concept, established restaurant chains recognized the opportunity to maximize their existing culinary infrastructure, rather than investing in new spaces. One noteworthy revelation was the revelation that “Pasqually’s Pizza,” an indie-sounding establishment, was, in fact, a Chuck E. Cheese side venture. Similarly, TenderFix marks the third “virtual brand” operating out of IHOP’s numerous kitchens, joining the ranks of Super Mega Dilla, focused on quesadillas, and Thrilled Cheese, specializing in grilled cheese sandwiches. These ventures were developed in collaboration with Nextbite, a prominent player in the ghost kitchen space, known for creating new virtual brands for existing restaurant chains.
Critics argue that these enterprises are, in essence, pseudo-restaurants, eliciting skepticism from some consumers. Nonetheless, the long-term success of TenderFix hinges on the establishment of its brand rather than its initial introduction. Undoubtedly, the recipe for a thriving ghost kitchen is evolving and becoming increasingly sophisticated. It seems that this innovative concept will continue to haunt the restaurant industry for the foreseeable future.