In recent years, but especially in the last few months coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic, a new concept has proliferated in the restaurant industry, that of virtual restaurants or brands which, although they are similar to delivery, insofar as the offer is found on digital platforms and channels that are subsequently sent to consumers, they differ in that they do not have a space open to the public, while delivery takes orders from physical restaurants. Within this market, two types of virtual brands can be distinguished: on the one hand, those developed by specialists in the digital channel or by restaurateurs who decide to bet on this model and have no precedents in traditional restaurants and, on the other hand, those promoted by restaurant groups, which can either create new virtual brands or open a new line of business to diversify their traditional brands through blind kitchens or dark kitchens.
Thus, at present and according to data collected by Alimarket Restauración, operate in the market more than thirty virtual brands developed by digital specialists, 13 have been created by restaurant groups and 13 other traditional brands have boosted their business through dark kitchen. Thus, in the first case, there are companies whose DNA is purely digital and that since its inception have explored, created and promoted virtual brands. Some examples are Freshperts, a company that began exploring this market ten years ago when neither the concepts of virtual branding nor blind kitchens were still in the vocabulary of the segment and that, at present, has a catalog of six virtual brands -'Sushifresh' (2012), 'Boko' (2015), 'FishandGreen' (2018), 'TakoTako' (2019), 'Rainbowls' (2019) and 'Hotto' (2020)-; Booh! a company whose strategy is based on two business routes: on the one hand, developing its own virtual brands -'Crunch Eat', 'La Rechinda', 'Legend' and 'Pua Poke'-, and, on the other, operating as a dark kitchen that rents its spaces to third parties; or StartEat, driven by brothers Enrique and Miguel Casas Rivera, with a business model similar to that of Booh! by developing its own virtual restaurants, -Bibimbap, Gecko Poke, Green Hill and N-Takao-, but also renting its kitchen spaces to third party operators.
Beyond these companies specializing in the creation of virtual restaurants, traditional restaurant groups have also entered this market niche, on the one hand, through the creation of their own virtual brands to operate specifically in the digital channel and, on the other hand, with the diversification of their brands through blind kitchens. An example that brings together the two aforementioned modalities is the restaurant group Mexicana de Franquicias, which has a network of 16 physical restaurants operated under the Mexican food brands 'La Mordida', 'Ricos Tacos' and 'Super Taco', to which it has now added its first own virtual brand, Arte Sana, based on the concept of healthy food and available on delivery platforms. Also, prior to this launch, the group had begun to explore the dark kitchen format in its 'Ricos Tacos' and 'SuperTaco' brands.
Sin Tenedor is another of the restaurant companies that have opted for the development of virtual restaurants. Thus, the group, with its origins in physical channels, has shifted its business to virtual brands, representing 67% of its current offer. It includes the physical restaurant brands 'Sushicatessen' and 'The Burger World' and the virtual brands 'Chickenly', 'Come Poke', 'GoGofre' and 'La Vinoteca Express'. As for the diversification of brands through dark kitchen, one of the operators that has used this formula is Papa John's, which has reached an agreement with Booh! to be present on the Costa del Sol without opening a store and only with delivery and take away services. Specifically, the pizzeria chain, which will use its own staff, will rent part of the 500 m² of kitchens that Booh! has in Malaga to prepare its products. In exchange, Booh! will provide not only its facilities, but also all the order management and delivery services, carried out both with its own means and through aggregators. This external kitchen rental agreement allows Papa John's to reach a new city and reinforce its growth, reducing the costs of the expansion process and considerably accelerating its pace of development.
Although the pandemic has been the ideal breeding ground for the proliferation of virtual restaurants and dark kitchens, it seems that their development was bound to happen sooner or later, according to some industry experts. However, despite this explosion, the virtual brand market is still in its infancy, although there is still plenty of room for development. For StartEat, for example, "we are still seeing the tip of the iceberg. The technological development of dark-stores and the specification and customization of virtual brands has only just begun". Vicente Montesinos, CEO of Ameba Research & Analytics, says that "virtual brands are here to stay" and that in the future, "they will form part of the home delivery offer, alongside specialized operators and aggregators". In this regard, the trend over the next few years is likely to be one of growth, followed by a period of stabilization, when some brands will disappear but others will consolidate. In this regard, Diego Ramos, consultant to the horeca and retail industry, indicates that the market "will continue to grow steadily, although not as exponentially as it has done in recent months. [The pandemic is accelerating the consumption habits of food prepared by restaurants at home, but obviously when we return to a scenario of normality, the situation will stabilize, but a good part of this volume of business will be consolidated". For Sara Serantes, founder and CEO of Freshperts, "there are changes that cannot be stopped, especially when the customer gets used to and accommodates to this new offer, just as the traditional model will not be lost. In my opinion, it is a coexistence that will evolve in line with social changes.
A pesar de la pandemia ha sido el caldo de cultivo idóneo para la proliferación los restaurantes virtuales y las dark kitchen, parece que su desarrollo era un hecho que se iba a producir tarde o temprano, según explican algunos expertos del sector. Pero, a pesar de esta eclosión, el mercado de las marcas virtuales se encuentra aún en un estado muy incipiente, aunque con un amplio margen de desarrollo. Para StartEat, por ejemplo, “estamos aún viendo la punta del iceberb. El desarrollo tecnológico de los dark-stores y la especificación y personalización de las marcas virtuales solo acaba de empezar”. Por su parte, Vicente Montesinos, director ejecutivo de Ameba Research & Analytics, indica que “las marcas virtuales han venido para quedarse” y, que en el futuro, “formarán parte de la oferta del envío a domicilio, juntos a los operadores especializados y a la oferta de los agregadores”. En este sentido, todo apunta a que la tendencia en los próximos años será de crecimiento pasando después por un periodo de estabilización, momento en el que algunas marcas desaparecerán pero, por contra, otras se consolidarán. Al respecto, Diego Ramos, consultor de la industria horeca y retail, indica que el mercado “va a seguir creciendo sostenidamente, aunque no de la forma tan exponencial que lo ha hecho en estos últimos meses. […] La pandemia está acelerando los hábitos de consumo desde el hogar de comida preparada por restaurantes, pero obviamente cuando regresemos a un escenario de normalidad, la situación se estabilizará, pero una buena parte de ese volumen de negocio quedará consolidado”. Para Sara Serantes, fundadora y CEO de Freshperts, “hay cambios que no pueden pararse, sobre todo, cuando el cliente se acostumbra y se acomoda a esta nueva oferta, como tampoco se perderá el modelo tradicional. En mi opinión es una convivencia que irá evolucionando en línea a los cambios sociales”.