Korean chicken wings have long been a favourite at Bone Daddies. Marinated in a mix of mirin, sake, ginger and salt, deep fried, smothered in a sticky gochujang sauce, and topped with sesame seeds, the signature side has been a staple of the ramen group’s menu since it launched back in 2012.
So popular is the dish, in fact, it appears on the menus across the Bone Daddies London estate, which also includes the two-strong Japanese izakaya concept Flesh & Buns, with restaurants in Covent Garden and Oxford Circus; and Shackfuyu in Soho, which is inspired by the Western-influenced Japanese yoshoku cooking style. In May last year – as the country found itself locked down for the first time – the group even released the recipe online, giving loyal customers the chance to recreate the wings at home.
Almost a year on and Bone Daddies has sought to further augment that fan enthusiasm with the launch of Wing Daddies, a virtual, delivery-only restaurant that offers that same marinated chicken wings with a variety of sauces including chipotle barbecue, sticky teriyaki and buffalo 'fire', alongside a selection of loaded tater tots.
“We’ve always toyed with the idea of doing more with the wings, but before Covid our focus was on the brands we already had,” explains operations director Steve Hill. “The impact of the pandemic though meant we had to think of new ways to extend the business that didn’t require much investment.
“In the past we’ve talked about the possibility of having a standalone, wings-focused concept. And when we began thinking about cost-effective ways to sustain the business while in lockdown, we touched on the idea again.”
Following a successful trial in early March, Wing Daddies has now taken flight and been rolled across the entire Bone Daddies estate.
“It feels like it worked, and we’re really proud of it,” says Hill. “Our focus throughout this pandemic has been protecting the business and our teams, and Wing Daddies has created more opportunity and stability for both.”
As a term, a virtual restaurant might sound like something of an oxymoron, but in the past year it has proven to be a popular way for groups like Bone Daddies to bring new concepts to market. These are delivery-only restaurants that exist exclusively in the ether, without a physical presence, and often operating out of a dark kitchen. Instead of a storefront with one or two tables outside, there is only an online order page that’s generally hosted on a third-party platform like Deliveroo or UberEats.
There are no tables and chairs in a virtual restaurant, no mood lighting or music. In place of waiters and bar staff, there are delivery drivers. You don’t need a reservation to get in, but you do need to be in the right catchment area if you want to place an order. And no, you can’t have some snacks while you peruse the menu – unless they’re ones you’ve supplied yourself.
“Our focus throughout this pandemic has been protecting the business and our teams, and Wing Daddies has created more opportunity and stability for both”
Sidechick, created by Patty & Bun founder Joe Grossman, was arguably one of the first major virtual restaurant brands to launch during the pandemic. Operating out of Patty & Bun’s central prep kitchen in east London for a limited time last summer, the concept focused primarily on roast chicken, served either half or whole and available with a choice of three marinades: za’atar, garlic, honey, olive oil and lemon; piri piri; and clarified butter with herbs and lemon.
Grossman had already been working on the plans for Sidechick for two and a half years. He even came close to launching it in a bricks and mortar site around 18 months ago, but that was eventually shelved. Returning to the idea again after the first lockdown hit, he saw a relatively pain-free way to test the concept effectively.
“We took a swing,” says Grossman, with a chuckle. “I’ve always thought there was a gap in the market for a brand like Sidechick and launching as a delivery-only service while everyone was being forced to stay at home gave us a chance to explore that theory.
“It wasn’t just a kneejerk reaction to the lockdown kicking in. We already had the infrastructure in place to deal with the orders and delivery, and doing it gave us the opportunity to further support our suppliers. From a business point of view, going virtual made perfect sense.”
The response from customers was overwhelmingly positive, according to Grossman, and pushed him to source a permanent site, which will launch next month on James Street in London’s Marylebone, right next door to Patty & Bun's first site.
“From the outside looking in, it just appears as if we had a successful delivery brand and are running with it, but this is something that’s naturally evolved over a long period of time. Sidechick is such a special project to me. And having tested it out virtually, it’s now about establishing it as a stand-alone brand that offers a proper restaurant experience.”
The rise of the delivery-only restaurant has gone hand-in-hand with the growth of dark kitchen hubs – essentially warehouses featuring dozens of smart kitchen units designed solely for delivery purposes. Pioneered by Deliveroo’s Editions, which first launched in the UK back in 2017, the model has spawned a new currency of virtual restaurant brands and spin-off concepts that, like Sidechick, can be road-tested in new locations with little of the CapEx required for traditional bricks and mortar restaurants.
Established operators to venture into the space over the past year include London-based fried chicken slinger Thunderbird, which has launched virtual vegan brand Jackfruit Junkie from its dark kitchen locations in Shoreditch and Croydon. Another is Rosa’s Thai Café, which relaunched vegetarian spin-off Rosa’s Thai Veggie as a virtual brand in London Fields, with ambitions to open further delivery-only sites as well as explore bricks and mortar opportunities.
First-time operators to enter the fray, meanwhile, include Youtube personality Mikey Pearce, whose vegan burger concept Clean Kitchen Club opened in Brighton last summer with aspirations of becoming the 'fastest growing plant-based delivery-kitchen brand in the UK'. The group has subsequently shifted its focus to expanding across London, establishing kitchens in Chelsea and Battersea, with more sites understood to be in the pipeline.
It isn’t only casual dining and grab-and-go businesses exploring the space, either. In June last year the Hakkasan Group brought it’s Mexico-based restaurant concept Casa Calavera to the capital as a ‘virtual culinary pop up', which it continues to operate as a delivery-only brand across parts of central London via Deliveroo from its Sake no Hana site in St James’s.
“Running multiple concepts out of one kitchen allows a business to maximise the space it has"
Others have turned the development of virtual restaurants into a business itself. Felipe Preece, who launched his first delivery-only brand long before the pandemic arrived, last year established Under One Kitchen (UOK), which focuses on creating concepts available for franchising that can operate side by side in the same kitchen space.
“The impact of Covid has led to so many businesses pivoting towards delivery, and so it’s become essential to try and stand out from the crowd and utilise your resources,” he says. “Running multiple concepts out of one kitchen allows a business to maximise the space it has. It offers an improved food offering while keeping labour costs low.”
Preece created his first virtual restaurant brand back in 2017. Called Sugoi JPN, it’s inspired by the street food of both Tokyo and Latin America, and started life operating out of a dark kitchen site in Bethnal Green. The menu's signature dish is a hybrid between Japanese nori and the Mexican taco fittingly named the NoriTaco, which features a crispy seaweed tempura shell shaped like a taco that's filled with sushi rice and Japanese-Latin toppings.
Sugoi JPN is now a core brand operated across UOK’s own five-strong portfolio of dark kitchens in London. Others include Just Yuca, which serves a menu of loaded cassava chips; and Venezuelan concept Arepita Sliders, which offers a range of ‘fill-your-own’ arepas alongside a small selection of sides including tequeños (deep-fried cheese sticks).
Crucial to the development of each concept has been ensuring each one has its own, independent social media presence. “It’s a lot harder to market a virtual restaurant as it doesn’t have a high street location,” notes Preece. “You need to work hard to grow an online footprint that’s eye-catching and accessible. Lots of businesses launch a virtual brand and think they can rely on third-party platforms like Deliveroo and UberEats to get their brand out there, but it doesn’t work like that.”
A means of support
For some hospitality businesses, being able to launch or operate a virtual restaurant brand either out of their own kitchen or a dark kitchen hub has been a crucial lifeline during the pandemic. Punch Pubs recently created its first virtual restaurant concept, called Bull & Bird, which is intended to give its publicans access to a new income stream.
Developed in partnership with Deliveroo, Bull & Bird was launched in November last year from three Punch pubs and according to the group saw 'immediate success' – selling out in two of the three trial venues. Believing there will be a permanent shift in consumer behaviour, Punch has since expanded the trial to a further 20 pubs including in Swindon and Macclesfield, and now plans to roll the brand out to more of its 1,3000-strong estate. It is understood that a second virtual brand is currently in development.
Restaurant Brands Collective (RBC), which launched late last year, describes itself as ‘targeted at offering a range of franchise solutions for hospitality and leisure operators looking to drive incremental sales through delivery from their existing kitchen equipment and teams’.
The businesses has been founded by three veterans of the sector: Toph Ford, a former head of food and marketing at Leon Restaurants; Brett Boyers, who has worked across restaurant openings, operations and franchising at The Restaurant Group (TRG concessions), Boparan Restaurant Group and Individual Restaurant Company; and Stefan Cosser, who managed the creative team at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen for over five years.
RBC’s range of franchise brands includes gourmet mac ‘n’ cheese concept Mac & Co; ‘superior fried chicken’ brand The Wingstitute; and Californian-style smashed burgers and fries specialist Pickled Pink.
“Toph and I had been thinking for a couple of years about how to help businesses with delivery,” explains Cosser, who has around 15 years of experience in menu development. “After the pandemic hit, we saw a lot of businesses struggle with the transition from running bricks and mortar to running delivery. It’s a completely different business mode, and needs to be thought about in its own, separate way.”
RBC’s business is available to pubs, entertainment and leisure operators, as well as businesses where food is not a ‘core business capability’, including limited service hotels, cinemas, sporting venues and casinos. Despite the sector finally beginning to emerge from a lengthy third (and hopefully final) Coronavirus lockdown, Cosser says what RBC offers will be fundamental to ensuring its clients are able to make it through the crisis.
“No one knows how long the recovery is going to take, but delivery is here to stay,” he says. “It was already big and that growth has just been accelerated by the last year. It’s such an important part of the sales mix now, and every operator that hasn’t thought about it before, should be.”
Looking to the future
There’s no doubt that delivery will continue to thrive in a post-pandemic world. Market research database Euromonitor predicts the delivery-only market will grow to $1 trillion worldwide by 2030. And as such, the growth of virtual restaurant brands is likely to continue at pace.
Charlie Farr, global head of dark kitchen construction firm PKL Delivery Kitchens, says his business predicts that more restaurateurs are going to start launching their brands virtually through delivery kitchens and focus on building up a brand image before considering a permanent base.
“The conventional route to launching a new restaurant business has been completely disrupted,” he says. “The delivery space is really hot at the moment, not just in the UK, but globally. There’s no shortage of opportunities, and the barriers to entry for new businesses are so significantly reduced it provides a great solution for new operators wanting to adapt to the norms created by Covid.”
For Cosser, while the emphasis right now is on ensuring RBC’s brands appeal directly to the delivery market, he has one eye on eventually moving them into a bricks and mortar space.
“These are not just virtual brands,” he says. “I’m trying to find a way to drop the word ‘virtual’ out of what we do as make it sounds like we’re trying to hide something and it’s not real, but it is. These concepts could go into food markets and bricks and mortar, and the benefit for the operator is that they then have us there to support them with ongoing support and training.”
Wing Daddies too, has its sights set on eventually establishing a more permanent presence on the high street.
“Wing Daddies has taught us there is an effective, low-risk way of trying out something new that you believe in,” says Hill. “The easiest suggestion of where to take it from here is opening a compact bricks and mortar site – something that would facilitate a takeaway functionality, but also have some seating.
“But we’re also talking about having a Wing Daddies truck, which would allow us to get outside of London and pardon the pun, spread its wings further. Covid has opened more doorways to develop and grow the business. The options are there, and we’re far more open to opportunities put in front of us.”