Spirited Apps: The Virtual Brands Lanscape
A look at Louisville's digital food scene
When Twisted Cajun first listed on GrubHub in December 2019, it should have panicked the owners of J. Gumbo's. Though Cajun is an under-served cuisine in Louisville—compared to pizza and BBQ—Twisted Cajun's two locations were near two of Gumbo's: the Highlands and Frankfort Avenue.
But they weren't just in the same neighborhood. Or even on the same block. The threat was coming from inside the kitchen. Twisted Cajun is J. Gumbo’s, either in a bowl or wrapped in tortilla.
“When GrubHub called and asked if we wanted to do a virtual kitchen, I said sure,” Joseph Montgomery, owner of the aforementioned Gumbo’s locations told me, “but I told them not to put Cajun in the name. I didn’t want to compete with myself.”
GrubHub was calling because Twisted Cajun is a newfangled trend in the restaurant industry: a virtual brand, a brand that exists primarily online. And like most things that pop up online, there's claims that virtual brands will make such a profound impact that one day we'll refer to times before and after them.
It's too soon to gauge those predictions, according to Elaine Nunn, Managing Partner at Impact Acquisition. “There’s not a lot of research on profitability or viability just because it’s so new,” Nunn told me over the phone, adding, “Louisville tends to lag behind a bit in these sort of trends.”
Tendency to lag or not, Louisville’s dining scene was forced to keep pace with larger, early-adopter markets thanks to two waves of indoor dining shutdowns and capacity restrictions in the ongoing fight against COVID. So while we're waiting for the verdict to be delivered, it's important to know how these brands exist in our local restaurant scene.
In Louisville, it’s easy to find two of the three kinds of virtual brands—catfishers and virtual concepts—but what I’m really after is the third kind. The type of virtual brand that’s invisible to the average passerby: a ghost restaurant.
Though it’s often used as a cover-all term, a ghost restaurant is a specific model of virtual brand. In a support page for drivers, GrubHub describes a ghost restaurant as “a commissary space...usually a converted warehouse or generally nondescript building.”
What I want to know is, does Louisville have a true ghost restaurant?
Inspired by the MTV show about misadventures in online dating, I use the term “virtual catfishing” to refer to any listed brand that is simply a segment or spin-off of its parent brand’s menu. The listing isn’t lying about what it’s got, but it isn’t telling you who it really is.
I first became aware of it when foodie Twitter was taken by storm in Spring 2020. A redditor in Philadelphia discovered her local Chuck E. Cheese was masquerading as Pasqually's Pizza & Wings.
The rat was sharing the spotlight with the drummer of his in-house, animatronic band. Deferring to Chef Pasqually proved a savvy move: at one point online sales of Pasqually’s souped-up pies accounted for 10% of sales in the post-COVID era.
This leaves a few questions unanswered, though. What makes up the other 90%? Does it include token sales and admission to the indoor playground? Can the ball pit be considered a superspreader?
Scrolling through the local options revealed a few more examples. Through the power of dad jokes, Little Greek was transformed into Pita Pan. SmashBurger had quarantined its chicken sandwiches to become Birch Bird. Denny’s burgers moved back into its parents’ Burger Den.
Applebee’s, Chili’s, and O’Charley’s chickened out of the Chicken Sandwich War, but re-branded for the bird as Neighborhood Wings, It’s Just Wings, and Coop & Run respectively.
Unlike Hooters with Hootie’s Dockside/Bait & Tackle/Burger Bar, most of these brands weren’t tying their new online identities to their brick-and-mortar existence. They had learned enough from the Internet's ridicule of the IHOb incident (even though that campaign quadrupled target sales).
Buffalo Wild Wings, to their credit, has taken to specifically shaming Applebee’s for its catfishing conduct, going so far as to offer duped customers gift cards to order “real wings.”
Corporate restaurants have long enjoyed the advantages of deep pockets. They’re endowed with coordinated advertising, prime real estate, and the ability to buy up enough product to raise prices on items like chicken wings and beef brisket. Now, with the apps as a middleman, they’ve compounded their efforts to command consumer attention by crowding listings with polished, thoroughly-researched alter egos.
But none of these alter egos constituted a ghost restaurant. Every example is attached to a traditional iteration of its parent brand. I’d have to keep up the hunt.
As I sat about connecting dots, my brother texted me. He didn’t share my distaste of the delivery sites. But he’d heard my lecture about delivery sites—they’re profit-gobbling, make-a buck-with-other-people’s-stuff vultures. And having worked as a line cook, he was sympathetic. He developed the habit of asking about a new place.
“Is Tyga Bytes local?”
At a walk-up window at 2051 S Hurstbourne Pkwy., I surveyed an array of stickers for familiar brands. Among them were the two brands that brought me there: Tyga Bytes and MrBeast Burger.
Unlike the virtual catfishers, however, none of the brands were derived from the menu of the brand whose marquee sign stood by the road. The one that reads Buca di Beppo.
As I snapped a picture, a manager greeted me. He had the concerned look of a cook who thinks he’s missed an order.
“Anyone I can talk to about all those?” I asked, pointing to the window.
“Corporate,” he replied, smiling. His look of concern faded. “We didn’t start doing them until a couple months into everything. I wanna say May . Before that, no one around here was doing them. Wasn’t really a need to.”
So what dictates which brands they pick up?
“They’re all VDC,” he explained. VDC stands for Virtual Dining Concepts, a group currently made up of thirteen brands. Most use celebrity-makes-the-brand endorsements—rapper Tyga, singer Mariah Carey, YouTuber MrBeast, DJ Pauly D—that take note from the now-defunct Kenny Rogers Roasters.
Others just lean on a buzzword: Wing Squad, P.za Kitchen, TikTok Kitchen.
What he said next explained a lot more: “They’re all owned by Earl.”
The vibrant namesakes started to make sense. Earl Enterprises is the master of kitsch. Owning both Buca di Beppo and Planet Hollywood, it’s no surprise that their digital siblings have utilized over-the-top branding.
Which might explain why the operators of Hoss Boss Wings & Ribs don’t fret about the VDC brands despite being less than a mile down the road.
Described by the Courier Journal and Business Insider as a ghost restaurant back in August, I had been thrilled to reach out to Chef David Danielson about the concept. This was supposed to be it; the true ghost restaurant.
I searched the menu to assess it. Hoss Boss had the first two markings of a prototypical ghost restaurant—a name with attitude that told you exactly what it sold, a menu with fewer than 20 items—but the header revealed that it struck out on the third. It shared an address with BoomBozz Craft Pizza · Taphouse.
That’s shared, past tense, because Hoss Boss isn’t accepting orders.
“We’ve got it off right now,” Danielson told me, “because once orders started coming in we realized we needed to do some renovations. We’re going to roll out a few brands with it and we need to fix up the workflow.”
While he wouldn’t disclose what they were, Danielson confirmed that there’d be four virtual brands coming out of the BoomBozz kitchen when “shared” returns to “shares.”
And the conglomerate level competition down the road? Danielson isn’t worried about them. They’re “focused on chef-driven, scratch kitchen food. That rapper with the wings didn’t come up with the recipes.”
I assume that was a dig at the Tyga Bites brand, but it could have easily been about VDC’s competition: the Nextbite family of brands. Whereas VDC leans mostly on celebrity tie-ins, Nextbite features 15 house brands to just 2 celebrity brands: George Lopez Tacos and HotBox by Wiz Khalifa. The latter of which has a location near the corner of 5th and Market.
The house brands are represented locally as well. Outlaw Burger and CraveBurger are both served out of the kitchen at 411 W Chestnut St. To my surprise, a quick Google search didn’t indicate a franchise brand. It was The Limbo.
Olivia Rose Griffin, owner of The Limbo, was kind enough not to refer me to corporate when I came asking questions. Instead, she explained what a buoy the virtual brands had been. Nextbite didn’t make her sign a contract that locked in her commitment. Nor did they dictate the hours or days that the menu had to be available.
On any day, for any reason, Griffin can “turn off” the menu. Short staffed? It’s off. Plenty of orders for her own menu? Off. One day, somewhere over the rainbow, when this is all over and she has a full restaurant? Off.
And when Griffin turns the menu off, Nextbite communicates with the delivery sites. There’s nothing else to juggle on the restaurant’s end.
I was surprised by the flexibility. Per Griffin, the only obligation the brand expects of her is a percentage of each sale.
“What’s funny,” Griffin told me, “is that Outlaw and Crave have the same menu. They just change the names of the burgers.”
Sure enough, Crave’s “Classic Burger” becomes “The Outlaw” with Mob Sauce. The “BBQ Burger” turns into “Butch’s Wild BBQ Burger.” And the “Truffle Burger” becomes “The Bounty Hunter Burger” (formerly “The Elitist,” an antagonistic tone to take with customers).
When we spoke, Griffin was considering adding Nextbite’s patty melt concept. It wasn’t immediately clear whether this referred to The Big Melt or Grilled Cheese Society since, like the burger concepts, there’s considerable overlap in the small menus.
With a handful of independent restaurants serving as host kitchens, I began to wonder how well it actually paid. Answers would differ by restaurant, sure, but it seemed worthwhile to all the operators I’d spoken to.
When asked if he’d recommend taking on virtual brands, Montgomery said, “if they got a restaurant in place, why wouldn’t they?” Danielson echoed that sentiment. But when I asked about hard numbers, Montgomery reported that between Twisted Cajun and their other brand, Billy Bowls, they profited “about $150 a day.” That’s plenty in an industry that has to mind its margins to keep prices from spoiling customers’ appetites—especially when there’s little extra investment involved.
Still, my ghost hunt continued.
HAUNTS COMING ON
There are dozens of homes in historical Butchertown that you could pass in the dead of night under the soft glow of streetlights and proclaim from the safety of the cobblestone sidewalk, “that place has got to be haunted.” But behind the flood wall, about halfway between the modest storefronts of Story Avenue and the new, immaculate Lynn Family Stadium, sits an unremarkable gray building. A building that once was—and is primed to again become—haunted.
The commissary at 240 Adams Street serves as home base for owners Noah and Heather Yates, who also own the Smok’N Cantina food truck. Because Smok’N Cantina’s menu is made from scratch, however, its operation has to meet state law requirements for “complex food preparation” (essentially anything that isn’t coming straight from a bag or box). That means working out of an inspected, stationary space.
When I stopped by the commissary, three food trucks were parked out back. Men were running relays from the back of the trucks to the back door of the commissary. I was hesitant to stop any of them because of the unmistakable looks on their faces: that of a cook who’s checking boxes off a long mental list. Walking at a quick pace to complete one task before forgetting the next. Staring off into the distance to combat the tyranny of threshold amnesia, that phenomenon of walking into another room (or walk-in) and struggling to recall what you came for.
I came to a stop short of the door, deciding I’d have to interrupt the next person to pass. But before anyone could, a voice called out from the nearest truck.
“Hey, what’s going on,” asked a man leaning over a box of to-go containers.
“I’m supposed to meet with Heather.”
“She should be right in the door,” he says, pointing to the threshold I’ve been eyeing, “I’m Noah, by the way.”
A few steps from the back door is a tall blonde fishing equipment out of a three-compartment sink. She pokes her head out from behind the dishwasher, says hello, and seamlessly rolls into tour mode as she dries off.
“I know it’s not much,” Yates begins as we turn a corner down the storage hall, “not as big as Chef Space out in Russell, but it’s still everything a business needs.”
We walk between dry storage cages, segmented for each client by chain link fencing, and a walk-in fridge toward the main prep area where several prep tables, a convection oven, six-burner range, deep fryer, flat-top grill, and a steam kettle (which Yates admits is rarely used) wait. If this is her definition of not much, then some of kitchens I’ve worked in had next to nothing.
But for all the amenities and space that 240 Adams Street had waiting for me, I was still missing the ghost itself: Wichin’ Pizza. It was Wichin’ Pizza’s listing on GrubHub, in fact, that led me to Adams Street once I realized I couldn’t think of an eatery of any sort on the street.
Inspired by the specialty-pizza-turned-sandwich lunches she used to pack for her son, Brittany Cummings opened Wichin’ Pizza in March 2020. In the middle of 2019, when she began planning the business as a takeaway-only model, she had never heard of ghost restaurants.
“I knew I wanted to make something innovative yet rooted in family [and] comfort,” Cummings told me in an e-mail, “but I didn’t have 200k+ to open a restaurant...so I began researching delivery only/pickup options.” Cummings had no idea that her business would fall so neatly into consumer demand.
What’s more, the online-only setting allowed her to pivot from her initial business plan. She’s been able to alter her menu without the costly process of printing new menus and adjust prices as food costs rise across the board; problems typical of new restaurants. And since her brand isn’t tied down, she’s able to organize pop-up events at other local businesses like ShopBar.
Cummings recognizes the sense of community that’s helped propel her business, having moved from Chef Space to 240 Adams Street to her own space in PRP. And she helps shine a light on other local brands like Lady J’s Lemonade by featuring them on her menu. “Because if the pandemic has taught us nothing else,” she wrote, “it taught us that we are all in this together. So, to support each other in that way is huge and I will continue to do that throughout my entire journey!”
Back at 240 Adams Street, Heather Yates shared a similar sentiment.
“Wichin' Pizza is a prime example of why we opened this space. We want these small entities to grow into something streamlined and successful. Bamba Eggroll company came in doing farmers markets and now they have a food truck,” Yates told me, “continuing to provide affordable space for these fantastic food related businesses is our goal.”
I have to admit that in the obnoxious, skeptical part of my mind I heard about these successes and wondered how long these models might last. How many years into unprecedented times consumers would prefer dining from home. If this hodgepodge of virtual brands I’d been tracking down might begin to look more saturated than our brick-and-mortar scene.
That is, until I remembered the most preliminary research I’d done; before any interviews had been conducted; before it’d been pitched; back when it was an outline in a notebook and I was lounging about my apartment while laid off from a restaurant myself; when I’d googled, “ghost restaurants in Louisville.”
The only meaningful return was an article from Foodservice Director that referred to a building down the street from the apartment I was lounging in: Chick-fil-A’s own ghost kitchen at 7405 New La Grange Road. The facility, which serves as the brand’s catering and delivery hub, is less than a mile up Shelbyville Road from the St. Matthews location, which itself is across the street from a location in the Mall St. Matthews food court.
The projected return on investment that a multinational like Chick-fil-A needs to justify such a dense arrangement is a massive dollar amount. And yet the East End alone clears that bar.
So why wouldn’t small businesses, whose make-or-break numbers are lower and whose operations are nimbler (can you imagine Chick-fil-A trying to scrub their menu as readily as Whichin’ Pizza?) succeed in the virtual space?
Why can’t an entrepreneur working for their own brand, rather than someone else’s, start on their dream sooner? The terms the current platforms offer may not be ideal, but nothing has been for the last two years.
We have to invest in the best ideas as best we can, as soon as we can. We have to support those with visions like the Yateses, whose parting words on my tour of 240 Adams were, “When they see success, we see success.”
So here’s to hoping you find a new favorite spot from your couch; not because you have to stay in, but because the brand is still building up to having a building. And to hoping that we support them so thoroughly that once they do open their doors, they’ll have a seat waiting for us.