An Innovation In Urban Dining – A Closer Look At The Virtual Food Hall

Real Estate

As a New Yorker, I’ve come to realize we are privy to numerous changes in the restaurant and franchise business long before people in many other parts of the country. One such change is the innovation of the  “Virtual Food Hall”. With the advent of online ordering, third party order and delivery platforms such as Grub Hub, Seamless and Door Dash as well as the need to optimize occupancy cost in cities like New York, the Virtual Food Hall  is taking a position in the already vigorous fight for the dining dollar.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Berger on the topic of Virtual Food Halls.  Mr. Berger is a founding partner of New York City based JBH Advisory, a firm that supports restaurateurs and retail brand owners with concept development, start-up planning, processes, and training. Mr. Berger and his team launched the first Virtual Food Hall in New York, Sous Vide Kitchen in 2017. I asked Brian to give us his insights into the Virtual Food Hall business model. He was gracious enough to explain the concept and answer my questions. 

What is a Sous Vide Kitchen – Virtual Food Hall? 

We coined the term Virtual Food Hall to represent the style of service and ordering offered at Sous Vide Kitchen. In a Virtual Food Hall guests order from our multiple brands using our self-order kiosk, pay in one single transaction, and receive their meal all in less than six minutes. 

How is a Virtual Food Hall different from a Urban Food Hall or Food Court?

A traditional urban food hall has  large open spaces where guests can enjoy a variety of cuisines in a hip atmosphere. Traditional urban food halls have a long history of success in Europe and metropolitan areas, with a recent explosion in U.S. cities. Traditional food halls have been gaining momentum for years. They present advantages and disadvantages for both guests and operators. On the plus side, guests can try multiple restaurants in one location, and operators can reduce their overhead cost by utilizing the shared physical infrastructure. However, this experience can be challenging for those looking to try multiple options or order and pay for a group with different tastes, as that would require each guest to wait in a separate line, pay and receive their meal at a different time. The Traditional Food Hall model is not ideal for groups wishing to dine together. We wanted to create an experience that would allow guests a more convenient way to enjoy items from multiple concepts and dine with others. 

Another term I hear is “Ghost Kitchen.” What is a Ghost Kitchen, and how are they different from Virtual Food Halls?

A Ghost Kitchen is a foodservice operation meant for delivery only. In other words, these businesses have no dining room or storefront. In many cases, you cannot even carry out from these businesses. One major disadvantage from a guest perspective is that they do not have any visibility as to the location or condition of the restaurant. While we enjoy the operational efficiencies of a ghost kitchen, we offer guests the ability to come to the food hall, if they choose. We offer diners the ability to order delivery, or pick up, or enjoy their meal in a spacious seating area where guests can relax and enjoy. 

When and why did you first come up with the idea of a Virtual Food Hall ? 

We launched our first fast-casual restaurant, BONMi (Vietnamese Inspired Baguettes & Bowls), in 2011 in Washington, DC. Our goal was to create an innovative model for production which centered on the Sous Vide cooking method to overcome the increasing challenges the industry faces (labor, food safety, consistency, capital expenses) and produce consistent, healthy, safe and delicious food. We tested the concept in various formats: standalone restaurant, campuses/food court, high-end supermarkets, and food trucks. We learned from these tests and evolved our processes to cement operations prior to scaling. Our eight years of fast-casual operations experience blended with our advisory firm’s client work made us acutely aware of several trends that were developing. 

The first was an increased awareness of the origin of food, food safety, and reduction of waste. Through the utilization of proteins prepared using the sous vide method of cooking, we can offer our guests the safest food possible while maintaining the nutritional integrity of each item. The use of ready to serve pre-cut vegetables allows us to operate in a zero-waste environment since we obtain 100% yield on every product that we purchase and allow our produce vendor to repurpose the parts of the product that we may not utilize. 

Can the Virtual Food Hall compete in the fast-growing Third-Party Delivery business?

Yes. We noticed an increase in meals consumed outside of the restaurant. In years past, delivery was a small arm of the business typically accounting for no more than ten percent of total sales; however, in recent years, the demand to enjoy meals outside of the restaurant has continued to grow. Acting as the sales arm of a brand, companies like Seamless/GrubHub, Meal Pal, Ritual, Fooda, Cater 2 Me, and Zero Cater continue to change the way guests order and receive meals. The expectation is that guests will receive the same quality of food and level of service that one would receive in the restaurant; as a result we have evolved our menus, processes, and strategies to ensure that we serve our meals in a variety of platforms; In-Store, Delivery, Catering, Off-Site Catering/Pop-ups, and third party pick up. 

When we opened our BONMi in New York in April of 2017, we selected a larger sized store (2,500 Square Feet). Our strategy was based on our ability to utilize the store for testing our delivery only, virtual concepts and provide a New York City hub for catering, pop-ups, and delivery. With the success of our operational model, combined with the realization that a high proportion of guests dollars are spent outside of the brick and mortar store, we began to develop and launch additional concepts through third-party delivery services and catering, one step at a time. The first concept operating out of the BONMi kitchen is Pulled & Chopped BBQ. This concept immediately received excellent reviews, and we were able to increase sales without adding any additional overhead expenses. After seeing this success, we continued to create concepts and offer them through delivery and catering channels. The next concept to launch was SVK Greens & Grains followed by Mediterranean Pure Foods, then Eso Latin. At this point, we were operating four delivery, only concepts out of the kitchen, while the storefront remained BONMi. 

Why did you marry the Virtual Food Hall idea to the Ghost Kitchen Concept?

We knew we had to find a way to offer the same variety of concepts to our guests in the store while maintaining the efficient production model that we were operating for our delivery-only concepts.  That’s where the idea to utilize the self-order kiosk came into play. We determined that the growing popularity of this trend would be the best way to showcase our brands and allow our guests to order from multiple concepts easily. We had each ingredient and all the signature dishes photographed to present a glorious high-resolution display. Guests are now able to browse through the offerings within each menu easily, see the allergen and ingredients of each dish, put everything in one cart, pay at the kiosk and receive a text when their order is completed. Since opening our food hall, we have continued to increase our collection of brands and have added Vindy Indian Inspired Eats to our current offering. We have other concepts currently in development and can see this model featuring eight to ten various menus. 

The concept could certainly live online only – however, our brick and mortar food halls are a great space where guests can enjoy their meal, socialize, or work remotely. 

What are the advantages to the guest using a Virtual Food Hall?

Guests love having many options at their fingertips. Order, pay and enjoy the experience. The ability to easily identify ingredients or allergens within each dish is a significant advantage.  With thousands of possible combinations, guests are inclined to visit multiple times per week without the risk of menu fatigue. We have noticed a bit of a trend with our SVK Greens and Grains as our highest volume concept at the beginning of the week and Pulled & Chopped BBQ as the most popular concept at the week’s end. Since there is something for everyone to enjoy, and multiple dietary constraints are satisfied, it is an excellent option for groups with a variety of preferences. Utilizing the sous vide method of cooking as the thread to bind our concepts together gives guests the peace of mind that items that we serve within our food hall are carefully selected contain clean ingredients with minimal processing.

For some guests, the idea of ordering through a kiosk without any human interaction can be intimidating. We eliminate that fear by staffing our food hall with a “kiosk concierge,” one employee who helps to oversee the dining room and as well as assist guest who may be apprehensive through their ordering process. We are in the business of creating repeat guests, so we find that spending a few moments with a guest the first time they come in will give them the confidence to return and order without assistance again and again. We consider Sous Vide Kitchen to be High Tech & High Touch. 

 What are the advantages and disadvantages to the Operator? 

From an operator’s perspective, there are only advantages:

  • Reduction of Labor

Operators love serving several concepts within one shared production line, utilizing the same staffing levels that they would for one brand. Through our menu engineering and production processes, we have created an innovative system, which allows less staff to produce a consistent, high-quality menu. Additionally, we do not need highly skilled culinarians – our process enables us to hire based on hospitality attitude. 

  • Platform Flexibility

We can accommodate what the market is requesting; food when you want it, how you want it, delivered through a variety of platforms (in-store, delivery, pop-ups, catering & delivery). Retail concepts can easily be rotated with minimal challenges. 

  • Lower Cost of Entry

We do not require ventilation and have minimal equipment requirements, making it a perfect concept for host environments such as transportation hubs, business & industry, campuses, healthcare facilities, and more. Costs can vary greatly depending on the area of the country, and the size of the food hall; however, we have found that buildout costs are fifty percent less than that of a traditional restaurant. Our concept’s space requirements are as small as 300 Square Feet and may go to over 2,500 Square Feet. 

Are Virtual Food Halls unique to urban centers with a concentration of daytime workers?

In general, Fast Casual restaurants do peak business during lunch hours; however, we do see guests picking up meals on their way home from work. Since our menu offering is very diverse, including a half chicken, ribs, and salmon, there is a great demand for delivery in the evening as well. There is potential to increase the take-out offerings and allow guests the option to pick up items to heat at home, allowing for the “semi home-cooked” experience. We are confident that this concept will thrive in any market from the inner city to suburban markets where other fast-casual options may be limited. 

Do Virtual Food Halls offer delivery? If so, do Operators handle that on their own or use a third-party ordering platform?

Currently, we see that approximately sixty percent of our sales are consumed outside of the restaurant, including take-out, delivery, and catering. Our delivery method is a bit of a hybrid model as we do employ a team of delivery personnel, but also utilize delivery from third-party vendors to help during times of peak volume. We use third-party ordering platforms as the marketing arm of our brands; they help to introduce our concepts to diners – which we then will convert to repeat guests who order directly through our channels. 

Where do you see this going in the next five years, and why?

We see this model as the future of foodservice as it addresses every major challenge facing the restaurant business, including rising wage costs, concern about food safety, the demand for customizable meals that cater to a variety of eating preferences, as well as the ability to serve guests through a variety of channels including dine-in, delivery, catering, or pick up. 

External factors such as rising minimum wage and increased paid sick and vacation time for hourly employees cause us to believe that the traditional restaurant model is not sustainable. Rising wage costs will continue to force restaurants to make difficult decisions regarding staffing; in many cases, a reduction in staffing can lead to a decrease in quality. However, as a result of the production model developed by Sous Vide Kitchen, we can produce consistent quality and deliver guests the offering of six restaurants with the staff that would typically serve one brand. Our model revolutionizes operations to meet modern demands. The precision temperature control of sous-vide cooking means it safer than traditional cooking methods, as we can bring food to precise​ temperatures while maintaining the nutritional integrity of each item. 

Our self-order kiosk allows guest the ability to select from a signature dish or select each ingredient to building their bowl, allowing for the ultimate customizable experience. Our streamlined and inexpensive buildout makes this an ideal offering not only as a standalone food hall but especially desirable within a host environment where space may be limited. The quality and flexibility of our offerings offer limitless opportunities for growth within stadiums, arenas, office buildings, higher education, and healthcare facilities.

Closing Thoughts To summarize my interview with Brian and after touring Sous Vide Kitchen; my takeaway is that the Virtual Food Hall model delivers many unique benefits not found in a brick and mortar restaurant, traditional urban food halls, or simple ghost kitchens. Virtual Food Halls enhance the guest experience with more choice, accuracy of ordering, speed of service and a dine -in option. For the restaurant operator it translates to lower buildout costs, more channels for distribution, and the ability to quickly address  lagging menu items. If a particular concept or menu isn’t producing enough sales and profits, the operator can change the menu and pivot concepts. By creating a single kitchen that operates multiple concepts and sharing ingredients, restaurant operators can quickly benefit from economies of scale from one single location.

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