In a COVID-19-plagued community, the restaurant industry faces steeper hurdles than ever before. With no way to serve customers in person, many dining institutions face one of two hard choices: moving to a delivery-only service model or shutting down to wait out the storm.
Despite these challenging circumstances, a delivery-based operation can be an excellent way to keep customers and drive revenue in this difficult time. For those unsure how to capitalize on this opportunity, a virtual kitchen may be the best opportunity.
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The virtual kitchen idea isn't exactly new, but the concept is becoming more relevant as times change.
Unlike a standard restaurant kitchen whose primary purpose is to feed customers at their tables, a virtual kitchen operates behind the scenes to produce food designed specifically for delivery.
The need for a dining room filled with stark-white tablecloths and a warming candlelight ambiance is gone. Virtual kitchens forgo several of the traditional brick-and-mortar mainstays in favor of efficiency. Servers are replaced with line cooks, the bar and patio swapped for a lowboy and full gas range, and food is brought straight to the customer’s couch, office, or street corner rather than a carefully curated dining area.
And perhaps more importantly, virtual brands are uniquely positioned to fill the niche gaps in your community’s food scene. Whether you want to try out a pop-up concept, sample adventurous menu additions, or test out footing for a more permanent spot, virtual kitchens offer great flexibility.
Whether you’re trying to break into a delivery-poor market, supplement your current restaurant’s operations, or just want to see what the craze is about, starting a virtual kitchen is no easy feat. But with the proper knowledge, it doesn’t need to be as hard as it’s often made - so let’s get you the appropriate information to dive into the deep end confidently.
As with most things in the United States (and realistically, everywhere), commercial kitchens are pretty heavily regulated state-to-state. You’ll find countless things you took for granted vary more than you ever knew. Cleaning protocols differ, operating licenses are acquired differently, and the regulations affecting your day-to-day life will change if you step into a new market.
This means that you need to understand the laws that affect your business at both a state and city level. Double-check what licenses and certificates you’ll need to operate within the bounds of the law, get a health inspection, and just generally do your due diligence.
While this process is certainly not enjoyable, it’s crucial to your business's health. The least you can expect if you leave local laws to the wayside is an increasing pile of hefty fines, and the worst-case scenario is forced closure. In other words, stick to the letter of the law when setting up a new business, virtual or otherwise - trust me here.
This second step is where you’ll find some of the most heated arguments amongst restauranteurs and chefs - does the space come first, or the menu?
Clearly, I stand in the second party. The menu is what gives your business heart and soul; it’s the epicenter of your entire operation. While getting space first likely won’t hurt your business, there’s something that’s often forgotten about virtual kitchens - more likely than not, you’ll be sharing space.
This means that you’ll need to keep a few things in mind when planning your menu:
1. Know your market.
This boils down to understanding what works in your market and what doesn’t. No matter what you want to make, know who your competition is, and importantly, figure out what they’re missing. If the only Bahn Mi shop in your neighborhood is closed for dinner service, that’s a niche just waiting to be filled.
2. Know your ecosystem.
This is an extension of the first point that’s especially vital to virtual kitchens that will be sharing space with other concepts. While I can’t tell you that you should create your menus in tandem, at least knowing where they’re going with their menu allows you to work around it. In other words, don’t create more competition; work around them, and you’ll both be able to succeed.
3. Focus on items that deliver well.
And finally, we reach what is perhaps the most essential point. Don’t try to deliver the same food you’d make in a brick-and-mortar. Delivery food gets soggy and room temperature fast, so maybe avoid the risotto and opt for pizza or something else with a better travel life.
In short, the process of building a menu for a virtual concept is similar to that of any other menu. But you also need to account for several other factors. You need to have a specific niche to fill, plan for operating in a shared space, and be painfully aware that you’re delivering everything.
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You have a few options when finding space for a virtual kitchen, but there are also a few factors to keep in mind. Let’s start with the essential tips for picking the best spot for your operation:
Now - let’s talk about where you can find space. It’s worth noting that the article I linked just above breaks down all of this and more - but I get it, reading is hard - so let’s get you a handy little list.
The best options for virtual kitchen space are:
Closed or limited-hour brick-and-mortar restaurants
If none of these are readily available in your area - don’t fret! There are several services and resources that are designed to pair virtual concepts with open kitchen space - and that’s our next topic of discussion.
So - we’ve got a menu and space and have ensured we’re within the bounds of local law. Next up is getting your sourcing set. While I’m sure we’d all love it to be this simple, sourcing for a restaurant is just not the same as swinging by the grocery store.
When sourcing, you need to get a supplier that can meet your demands on time, consistently, and with high-quality produce. And while it’s definitely important to your restaurant, food isn’t the only thing you need to worry about. You’ll need all of the accouterments that come with delivery; to-go cups and containers, bags, packaging, disposable (or compostable) to-go silverware - you need it all.
And it’s always better to do your due diligence when it comes to sourcing; not all suppliers are created equally, and you’ll learn that the hard way if you just jump on the first one to cross your desk. Look for local suppliers keyed into the community, seek out better deals, and don’t be afraid to keep looking. We want the Goldilocks supplier here - not too expensive, nor too cheap or spread out, but just right.
While this is a secondary (or tertiary) concern compared to the other parts of this list, finding groups or individuals to partner with can help ease the workload on your part. Whether that means finding fast, easy-to-implement products that complement your service or finding someone to get the hard work of sourcing and onboarding third-party delivery services for you, there are many options.
If you just want to find a pre-existing company that can help bolster your virtual brand, groups like Ben & Jerry’s, The Cheesecake Factory, and Cinnabon have started to explore collaborations with virtual brands in recent years.
And if you’re more in the market for help on the other side of the restaurant, consultancy services like Virtuateur can help you with loads of various tasks. Whether you’re struggling with sourcing suppliers and ingredients, building a menu that resonates with your target audience, or just require help onboarding services like GrubHub, it doesn’t all need to be on your shoulders.
So take a load off and look for help - I know it’s not always the easiest thing to do, but none of us would be where we are if we hadn’t gotten a well-timed helping hand at some point or another.
If you could go back in time and tell yourself five years past that phone delivery orders were going the way of the dodo, your younger self likely would have laughed you out the door. But with the advent of a global pandemic that kept most of us as indoor hermits for nearly two years, that’s the reality we face now. And not all restauranteurs are quite catching on.
The truth of the matter is that most customers don’t want to navigate your 10-year-old WordPress website. They don’t want to dig through the menu listed on your Facebook or Google Business page. What customers want is food, and they need it yesterday.
That’s where third-party delivery services like GrubHub, DoorDash, and UberEats come into play. It’s why they’re so successful - they found the market trend and doubled down on it - and so should you.
If you’re not in the online ordering scene at this point, you’re late to the party, but it hasn’t died yet - so hop on it! Diners prefer to visit one website where they can compare their favorite spots and place a single order. While many restaurants can and do succeed without online ordering, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to break into any market without taking advantage of the services that created it.
And just as with any other business or industry, diversity in your restaurant is crucial to seeing it succeed in the long run. In a heavily fragmented industry, market leaders like GrubHub and DoorDash account for around 20% of the local online market, so failing to capitalize on multiple platforms can mean leaving money on the table.
There are a lot of potential solutions out there, but (believe it or not) we here at Cuboh think that we do things a bit better than most.
We help people just like you to consolidate all of your online ordering resources into a single streamlined application. And best of all? We do it every single day.
If you’re tired of sitting in a sea of tablets from numerous services, it’s time to familiarize yourself with the idea of tablet hell - because it seems like you’re in it. And luckily for you, that’s our area of expertise. We make it so that you and your staff can focus on the things that matter; getting delicious food out to hungry customers promptly, rather than trying to wrangle all of your orders across platforms.
So book a 15-minute consultation to see how Cuboh can help you build your virtual brand into the next hot trend and, importantly, how we can streamline and improve your business in just about every aspect. Owning a restaurant (virtual or otherwise) is tough, but it doesn’t need to be as hard as you’re making it.