As a restaurant operator in today’s evolving landscape, it’s critical to stay ahead of the latest industry trends. By understanding consumer preferences and embracing technology, restaurants can capitalize on new ways to drive sales and maximize operational efficiency. As off-premise dining became the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic, one restaurant trend that accelerated was virtual brands. Whether you’re in a bustling city or a rural area, restaurants of all types can launch virtual kitchens to generate incremental income using their existing operations. 

In this blog post, we’ll share tips to help you open a virtual restaurant brand and explore how Scaffidi Restaurant Group, a family-owned Italian restaurant in Steubenville, Ohio, launched the first virtual kitchen in the Ohio Valley region. 

What is a virtual restaurant brand?

A virtual brand is a delivery-only concept that allows restaurants to launch an additional restaurant using their existing kitchen and staff. Virtual brands help restaurants increase sales and reach new customers without increasing operational costs. 

After COVID-19 forced restaurants to shut down dine-in operations, Scaffidi Restaurant Group partnered with DoorDash to quickly expand delivery operations and create a business model that thrived in any economic environment. In just a few months, their monthly delivery orders increased by 1,850%. Pleased with this initial off-premise success, Frankie DiCarlantonio, Director, Scaffidi Restaurant Group came up with the idea for a delivery-only chicken wing restaurant. 

As Frankie explained in Steubenville’s local newspaper, “A lot of our business was focused around catering and around people gathering at the bar,” he said. “But that wasn’t happening, and we wanted some unique ways to build our brand. We did our homework, we researched trends and found what others in the same situation as us were doing — we found that in a lot of cities and large metropolitan areas where technology was more prevalent, the virtual kitchen concept was working quite well.”

In just six weeks, Frankie set up operations, trained his staff, and stocked inventory to launch Scaffidi’s Wings on Wheels — the first virtual kitchen in the Ohio Valley region. The virtual brand offers delivery and pickup through the DoorDash App and Storefront, as well as other third party platforms. 

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Benefits of virtual restaurant brands

A virtual brand offers restaurant operators new opportunities to grow their business. Not only does it drive incremental sales, but enables restaurants to provide consistent shifts to their staff. With the additional orders from Scaffidi’s Wings on Wheels, Frankie was able to hire several new full-time employees and add shifts for existing staff. “More than just providing another outlet for sales, DoorDash is actually sparking employment,” he explained.

Virtual brands also help restaurants future-proof their business, giving them diverse revenue streams and a flexible business model that can weather any storm.

“We didn’t want to rely so much on in-house dining anymore. We wanted a brand that was untouchable — that has what it takes to get through a disaster like COVID-19.”

Frankie DiCarlantonio, Director, Scaffidi Restaurant Group in Steubenville, OH 

The importance of educating customers

As the first virtual restaurant brand in the area, Frankie discovered that he needed to first educate his community about virtual kitchens. When Scaffidi’s Wings on Wheels first opened, customers wondered whether it was a virtual reality experience. “People asked, ‘Do you actually eat the food?’” laughed Frankie. “No one knew what we were doing.” 

To help clear up these misconceptions and drive awareness for his new business, Frankie was able to secure a news story with local television station WTOV. His team also shared updates across their website and Facebook channels to explain how the restaurant works, what customers can expect when they place orders, and answer other common questions. Finally, while the original name was simply “Wings on Wheels,” Frankie realized he needed to add his beloved family restaurant’s name to help build trust and familiarity — and re-launched the brand as Scaffidi’s Wings on Wheels. 

After implementing these strategies, the orders started flowing in. “It’s going well,” noted Frankie. “The virtual brand has provided a very nice stream of income to us.” 

Advice for small-market restaurant brands

When asked to share tips for other small market restaurants considering DoorDash, Frankie encouraged them to dive into the third-party delivery trend. “I would say to do it. I was wholeheartedly surprised at the volume that came in the beginning,” noted Frankie. “Even if you’re in a smaller area, there are no monthly fees, no upfront costs to absorb except the percentage fee per order. You’ve got nothing to lose.” 

And when it comes to virtual restaurant brands, Frankie pointed out that COVID-19 accelerated consumers’ expectations for seamless, online experiences in all aspects of their lives — including restaurants. “People are getting used to using technology in their everyday life — it’s not going anywhere anytime soon,” he said. “Why not be a trailblazer and open the first virtual kitchen in your area? 

Embracing off-premise for the long-term

Looking ahead, Frankie will continue to focus on developing virtual brands and other off-premise business opportunities. His next concept, Scaffidi’s Gnocchi Nook — a carryout-only, make-your-own pasta bowl restaurant — is set to open its first location in 2021.

And as restaurants prepare to re-open to higher capacities, Frankie believes delivery will remain a key part of the food service industry. “Even as COVID-19 is declining, we’re still seeing people placing DoorDash orders,” said Frankie.

“Third-party delivery is here to stay. The comfort and convenience of eating at home isn’t going anywhere.”

Frankie DiCarlantonio, Director, Scaffidi Restaurant Group in Steubenville, OH 

Frankie sees the restaurant industry’s embrace of technology during the pandemic as a good thing overall — a shift that will help restaurants of all types and geographies strengthen their business models for the long-term. “Technology is coming to your area — whether because of COVID-19, or because of younger generations joining your community,” he said. “Embrace the technology because it’s here to stay and will become more and more mainstream very soon.” 

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Sara DeForest

Sara DeForest is a Bay Area-based freelance copywriter. Previously, she was VP of Marketing at an early stage startup that was named one of Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies. Prior to that, Sara was a content marketer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Though Silicon Valley is a roller coaster, Sara finds her real adrenaline rush doing standup comedy.