How to Start a Virtual Restaurant

There’s been a major surge in the popularity of virtual restaurants over the past two years—and this trend shows no signs of slowing.

- Market Watch reports the virtual restaurant and ghost kitchen market is set to skyrocket in the next five years at a compound annual growth rate of 5.6%.

- Euromonitor estimates that virtual restaurants and ghost kitchens could be a dizzying $1 trillion market by 2030.

The list of reputable sources remarking on the growth of virtual restaurants & ghost kitchens goes on. What the numbers don’t show—what they can’t show—is the effort behind this shift. All the restaurateurs who, through hard work, ingenuity, and partnerships, created culinary content that thrived without brick-and-mortar spaces and in-house dining experiences.

Let’s discuss the shift to virtual dining and its effects. In this article, we’ll explore why virtual restaurants are popular, how a partnership with REEF can make the transition easier, and how to plan and market your new virtual restaurant to ensure success.

Why Go Virtual?

We can think of several reasons to turn a fresh restaurant idea into a virtual concept, but here are the most common reasons that have contributed to this spike in popularity:

- Crisis-proofing: COVID-19 taught every business owner the value of preparing for widescale crisis disruptions. Moving to a virtual model allows restaurant owners to replace or supplement their dine-in income with contactless options.

- Minimal overhead: Getting a virtual restaurant off the ground isn’t the cash vacuum that starting a brick-and-mortar restaurant is. It requires relatively little overhead income.

- Low-risk expansion opportunities: When you launch a virtual restaurant through REEF's kitchen network, you can tap new markets without commercial leases. You also gain access to our proprietary geoscoring technology, which places you in areas you’re most likely to thrive.

- Creative expression: Opening a virtual restaurant gives you the opportunity to alter or expand your restaurant brand in new and creative ways without altering your dine-in menu. The creative possibilities are endless.

- Catering to convenience: Modern diners don’t just appreciate convenience—they expect it. According to a comprehensive study by Deloitte, the trend toward convenience in the food industry is here to stay. And as we say in the restaurant business, “always give the customer what they want.” For more information on what virtual restaurants are, including how they differ from ghost kitchens, we encourage you to browse our site. (Our article, What Is a Virtual Restaurant, is a great place to start.)

Starting a Successful Virtual Restaurant: The First Step

There are two ways restauranteurs can start to cash in on the virtual restaurant trend.

1. Create your own virtual restaurant concept. Restauranteurs can launch a virtual restaurant concept to test new brand ideas, menu items, and even new cuisines. This approach supports culinary creation without the risk and capital investment of traditional brick-and-mortar expansion.

2. Plug an existing virtual restaurant into your kitchen. There are countless virtual restaurant concepts in the ether, from mom-and-pop shops to international celebrity brands. We can help you bring an existing, in-demand brand to your brick-and-mortar kitchen to supplement your in-dining sales.

Adapting a Menu for Delivery

When you create or prepare a menu for delivery, you need to keep a few key considerations in mind: time, travelability, upsell potential and customization. First and foremost, your virtual restaurant menu should be optimized for quick prep. If time is important for dine-in restaurants, it’s doubly important with delivery food. Your dishes need to be prepped, packaged and delivered in a tight timeframe. If you’re creating a virtual restaurant concept, try to develop easily assembled menu items that don’t require a mountain of á la minute cooking.

Next, consider travelability. Not all foods travel well. A dish with hot and fresh components—like a pork chop with seasonal greens, for instance—could arrive at a diner’s doorstep cold, if the heat of the protein wilts the fresh greens. Scenarios like these are a far cry from your vision of culinary perfection. As you develop a virtual restaurant menu, pay special attention to how the conditions of a delivery package affect individual components.

To make your virtual menu as profitable as possible, offer plenty of opportunities for add-ons and buildable customization. Add-ons can be prepared ingredients you already have on hand for other dishes. For instance, your Mexican restaurant might create a premium side of “loaded fries” by combining a regular side—French fries—with guacamole, pico de gallo, and al pastor pork. For more delivery menu development tips, explore our article on how to create the perfect delivery menu.

If you’re fulfilling orders for an existing virtual restaurant, you’re in luck—all this heavy lifting has already been done for you. Kitchens on REEF’s network receive all the recipes, training, and delivery management technology you need to succeed.

Virtual Restaurant Marketing

Marketing a virtual restaurant is a multi-pronged effort, encompassing everything from packaging to food photography and social media promotion. Before you launch your new virtual concept, tap into your brick-and-mortar restaurant’s existing fanbase for promotion. Use your restaurant’s social channels to drum up excitement in your new delivery menu, posting behind-the-scenes pictures of menu planning or a countdown to the launch date. Consider contacting local digital food media outlets (your local Eater, Munchies, Dished, etc.) for coverage.

Packaging and photography can also be powerful marketing tools. Packaging is the first thing diners see when they receive your food and can leave a lasting impression. Don't settle for a nondescript paper bag. Utilize stamps, stickers or custom-made bags to reinforce your brand colors and iconography.

As for food photography, we recommend hiring an experienced photographer to capture a few of your top dishes. According to Google surveys, high-quality food photography can increase orders on delivery apps by up to 35%. It may seem like a big investment, but bright, quality snaps of your food should pay off handsomely. Just ask DJ Khaled, whose Another Wing launch with REEF arrived alongside vibrant, compelling photographs of the A-list entrepreneur and his virtual restaurant concept.

Of course, if you’re plugging an existing virtual restaurant concept into your kitchen, all packaging and photography considerations will be taken care of for you. Kitchens fulfilling virtual restaurant orders with REEF may even benefit from our extended marketing suite—like social media campaigns, Google Ads, and sponsored placements on the most popular delivery apps.

Feeling inspired? With REEF, you can safely turn your restaurant into a virtual success with minimal capital investment. Add your kitchen to the REEF network today to start earning.



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