Why MrBeast, Mariah Carey, and B.J. Novak all have digital restaurants

When MrBeast, a bearded, millennial YouTuber with a 60 million-strong fan base, determined to get into the restaurant enterprise final yr, he didn’t open a brick-and-mortar area lined with fan memorabilia or photographs of himself engaged within the stunts that have made him well-known—spending 50 hours buried underground or providing individuals $100,000 to stop their job. As a substitute, he launched an app, MrBeast Burger, that enables followers to order burgers, fries, and chocolate chip cookies by the bagful. 

MrBeast [Photo: Virtual Dining Concepts]

When MrBeast Burger launched final December, the digital restaurant (or kitchen, relying in your desire)—which is accessible by way of a standalone app and on-line supply companies like PostMates and DoorDash—was getting ready meals in about 300 kitchens across the nation. That quantity is now nearer to 600, and is predicted to hit 1,000 by the tip of the yr. 

Even to somebody like Robert Earl, that type of in a single day progress and attain is a marvel. The previous Laborious Rock Cafe CEO and Planet Hollywood founder has a brand new firm, Virtual Dining Concepts, that’s behind MrBeast Burger. “If you happen to take a look at London, we have been full with a two-hour line (at Planet Hollywood) for a number of years,” Earl stated over the telephone just lately. “However we most likely catered to lower than 1 / 4 a p.c of the inhabitants. If we had the digital know-how then, we might have taken Planet to them.” 

Digital Eating Ideas, which Earl based along with his son Robbie, is doing simply that: taking digital restaurant franchises to the individuals, by capitalizing on the mixed forces of social media, celeb, and digital meals fashions that have taken maintain—and wildly accelerated—in the course of the pandemic. The thought is to chop down on the standard complications and bills of operating a conventional restaurant (hiring front-of-house workers, coping with permits) whereas permitting present restaurants to create new income streams. This idea has been readily embraced in the course of the pandemic, which has battered the normal restaurant business.


Mario Lopez [Photo: Virtual Dining Concepts]

Digital Eating Ideas trains cooks in already working kitchens—most of which belong to Earl—in the right way to put together meals for the corporate’s digital manufacturers, and then gives all the branding and take-out supplies. It additionally negotiates offers with supply companies like DoorDash, utilizing its rising portfolio to extend visibility for its manufacturers on these apps. Along with MrBeast Burger, the corporate additionally launched a baked items line for Mariah Carey (Mariah’s Cookies); a Mexican meals model for TV host and actor Mario Lopez (Mario’s Tortas Lopez); and a subway sandwich chain for Jersey Shore star Pauly D (Pauly D’s Italian Subs).

Pauly D, Earl says, “oozes subway sandwiches.”

The ghost kitchen craze has ensnared different splashy names, too. The Workplace star B.J. Novak just lately teamed with Otium chef (and, spoiler alert, winner of Netflix’s chef competitors present The Closing Desk) Tim Hollingsworth to launch an Instagram-based, digital restaurant that options connoisseur takes on favourite chain-restaurant eating objects like Outback Steakhouses’s Bloomin’ Onion. Followers of Chain’s Instagram account are instructed when dishes can be dropped, and the meals is then obtainable for decide up at a West Hollywood location. As well as, rapper Wiz Khalifa began Hotbox by Wiz, a digital restaurant that options fast-casual dishes “personally curated by Wiz with enter from followers,” in line with a press launch. 

Celebrities utilizing their fame to entrance a series restaurant is definitely nothing new, relationship not less than again to the nation singer Minnie Pearl’s eponymous fried rooster chain within the 1960’s. Planet Hollywood, Earl’s see-and-be-seen scorching spot within the 1990’s, was co-owned by Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The trendy iteration of this phenomenon can be the burger chain Wahlburgers, began by Mark Wahlberg and his brothers. 

The brand new world of food-as-entertainment

However the brand new wave of celeb-owned digital restaurants is rather more built-in with a star’s higher enterprise, working as a key platform and level of engagement inside their burgeoning empires versus unrelated enterprise that at finest yields the odd TV spin-off. The truth sequence Wahlburgers, in fact, ran on the A&E cable community from 2014 to 2019. In keeping with WME associate Amir Shahkhalili, the present had an affect on Wahlberg’s  burger enterprise–“While you’re making franchise offers, saying you have a present on A&E each week is a large factor.” Or was. “Cable TV was such a robust medium again then. Streaming was not the place it’s.” Shahkhalili admits that at present, the advertising and marketing that’s driving this new wave of digital restaurants is extra digital and natural. Certainly, in some ways, these companies are themselves a type of leisure that feed again into an influencer’s different efforts, making a symphony of consciousness that goes far past, say, the picture ops that Stallone and crew posed for at Planet Hollywood openings. 

[Photo: Virtual Dining Concepts]

Take MrBeast Burger. Two months earlier than it launched, a MrBeast Burger pop-up restaurant was arrange in North Carolina the place Jimmy Donaldson, aka MrBeast, handed out free burgers and wads of money. The road to choose up meals was 1,000 vehicles lengthy. However extra importantly, the day and its buzz offered fodder for Donaldson’s social media platforms. “He used that to create content material for a December 19 launch,” Earl says. “It was some of the superb methods to launch a brand new restaurant model.” 


Andrew Chason, cofounder of Fresh Mgmt, which represents cooks resembling Roy Choi and High Chef alum Carla Corridor, says it “felt extra just like a streetwear drop than it did a restaurant opening.” 

Company, too, posted movies of themselves pulling as much as the restaurant and choosing up baggage of meals. That dynamic lives on. Certainly, ordering a MrBeast Burger is as a lot in regards to the meals because the social-media alternative: unwrap burger, take video, publish.  

Chason says these ventures are “virtually like a content material play. You’re placing one thing on the market that enables individuals to interact. It’s experiential and it’s tangible, and it’s one thing that folks will have. It continues to construct that reference to the influencer’s viewers. I don’t suppose that’s the principle cause you had celebrities investing in restaurants previously.”

Knowledge is the key ingredient

Traditionally, Chason says, when A-listers grew to become concerned in restaurants it was sometimes as a result of “it was one thing they have been actually captivated with and they needed a chunk of a restaurant, or possibly they labored within the enterprise earlier than they grew to become profitable in no matter their craft was, in order that they needed to open one thing.” Right now, there may be “somewhat bit extra of a promotional facet to this.”

Celebs and their enterprise companions may also be extra focused about whom they’re serving—and the place—as a consequence of all of the information and analytics culled from a star’s social media following, mixed with supply service information. The place are MrBeast’s followers primarily situated? What varieties of meals do they often order? (Apparently not fantastic French delicacies.) All of this goes into deciding what kind of enterprise to embark on. 

“They’re equally meals and equally tech corporations,” says Toby Borg, head of worldwide consumer technique at CAA. “That’s the distinction. It’s actually about distribution and supply—the tech facet of this—in addition to the meals.” 

[Photo: Virtual Dining Concepts]

Nearly at all times, distribution means scale. MrBeast Burger was arrange inside 30 days. The truth that it is going to quickly be obtainable in virtually each nook of the nation (and components of Canada) factors to the facility of digital delicacies companies. Shake Shack, which launched in 2004, has simply over 300 areas all these years later. In-n-Out, the cultish, Southern California burger joint that equally prides itself on recent elements and nice service, is older than McDonald’s, but has lower than 400 shops.

Borg says at present’s speedy buildouts are interesting for celebrities because it interprets to the chance for faster monetary success and a faster model hit. The primary problem is high quality management. Even Earl, whose total enterprise mannequin is constructed on creating in a single day franchises, says that MrBeast Burger could have grown too rapidly and that “given time, we might have performed it slower.”  

“You have to have an excellent coaching program (for cooks),” Earl says. “We’re getting higher and higher on that. However you have to open issues in a sure method.” He factors to a different one in all his digital kitchen manufacturers, Man Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen, as following a extra manageable timeframe. “We began with 9, then went to 39, then 69, then 99 . . . . “ 

The facility of celeb—and FOMO

Rising manufacturers like Chain are additionally exploiting one other good thing about being a digital-based enterprise: gamification and exclusivity. To affix the Chain membership—which it very a lot appears like—you have to comply with the corporate’s Instagram account by request (word: I have but to be given the nod). Solely then are followers alerted to meals drops, which rapidly promote out. Different Instagram-based supply corporations comply with this sudden-drop mannequin, together with My Cookie Seller and Allie’s Banana Bread, upping the businesses’ anticipation and FOMO attract.

Allie Chernick, who began her Brooklyn-based banana bread firm in 2017 after sufficient pals raved about her grandmother’s recipe, stated the corporate solely took off after she was pressured to close down her kitchen as a consequence of COVID-19 in March 2020. She spent the next months upping her social media recreation, following and commenting on different meals influencers, and constructing her community. By the point she was in a position to get again within the kitchen, she had 10,000 followers, up from 500 pre-pandemic.


The primary time she introduced a drop, it bought out in minutes. She’s additionally benefited from the direct entry Instagram gives to virtually anyone. After DM’ing Alan Cumming and Andy Cohen, she despatched every a loaf, leading to ooh’ing posts from the celebs attempting her bread.

Chain equally advantages from its A-list pals community. Mindy Kaling, John Mayer, Kaitlyn Dever, Ike Barinholtz, and Kiernan Shipka have all posted photos of the model’s red-and-white takeout bins on social media. 

However maybe the largest driver behind celeb ghost kitchens is that it’s a win-win for all concerned. Restaurants can usher in new cash and put underutilized kitchens to work. Celebrities can construct their model and take a look at out a brand new mannequin: If a supply service connects with customers, then the following transfer might be to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant or go into merchandise.

And if it doesn’t join, nicely, how a lot does it matter? As Chason says, “One of many issues that the celeb facet does is that it offers you somewhat little bit of a buffer. As a result of if their factor isn’t excellent out of the gate, it’s like, ‘Properly, she’s a singer first. Possibly I didn’t have one of the best cookie. However then at some point I did have a very good cookie.’ These companies aren’t as scrutinized. Whereas when you’re a chef and you have one dangerous dish, one dangerous expertise, individuals write a Yelp overview and damage your online business. I do suppose it offers you somewhat extra of a cushion.”