The pandemic has dramatically changed how our restaurant patrons dine. With that has come a wave of a new virtual dining experiences that are transforming the industry. These virtual experiences are a unique way to bring new or existing restaurant brands to life. The ghost kitchen concept has emerged as a vibrant and cost-effective way to make the experience real.
Among the leaders in paving the way for this new segment of the industry is Eric Greenspan. He has brought a track record of success to his partnership in California based Virtual Dining Concepts. Greenspan has a rich history in the food and hospitality industry that has helped him develop an exciting virtual dining experience.
Having started in fine dining, working for high-end restaurants and world-class chefs such as David Bouley, Greenspan became well-versed in all that made a brand and business successful. Greenspan became an executive chef for Patina restaurant in LA and in 2008 opened his first restaurant called Foundry on Melrose. He then ventured into food media, became an Iron Chef winner, and was featured regularly on Guy’s Grocery Games and Guy’s Ranch Kitchen. His own show on National Geographic, Eric Greenspan is Hungry, and his cookbook, The Great Grilled Cheese Book, were both hits.
Greenspan then became one of the very early entrants into ghost kitchens. “After growing my brick-and-mortar restaurant business to seven restaurants, I decided to change my focus,” he said. “I was one of the first tenants at the first cloud kitchen building in LA in 2018.” Greenspan was added to the National Restaurant Power List in 2019 for his work in ghost kitchens.
With that came an introduction and a partnernship with Robert Earl to create Virtual Dining Concepts (VDC). “I met Robert in the cloud kitchen, and we eventually partnered on my existing concepts,” Greenspan explained. “We got to talking and came to the joint belief that the traditional ghost kitchen model wasn’t something we thought provided the best chances of a restaurant’s success at the time and wanted to explore virtual concepts.”
One of the key strategic decisions about VDC for Greenspan was to decide between a ghost kitchens or virtual concept: “With ghost kitchens you are renting a dedicated space to execute delivery-only concepts, and with a virtual experience you partner with existing operators and use their existing staff and equipment to open up a second or third revenue stream for the execution of a delivery-only concept,” Greenspan explained.
The third member of the VDC founding management team: Robbie Earl brought very unique insight and youth to the venture. The younger Earl saw the opportunity that existed in partnering with “today’s celebrities” that in most cases had no food background of any kind. A main strategy of VDC is to partner with well-known Intellectual Properties (IPs) to help draw awareness to the existence of a brand. Partnership with You Tube celebrity Mr. Beast became VDC’s most successful brand to date. “He helped drive engagement towards the Smash Burger concept, a menu trend that operates within a traditional burger white space. When we launched a Mr. Beast burger app with a loyalty program it was the #1 downloaded app on launch day and remained on the top charts for a significant period.”
Greenspan notes that VDC’s efforts to merge food with the social media stars of today are still in their infancy. He has observed efforts in menu additions, such as a dessert brand from food television star Buddy V as, being an entire delivery purchase on their own not just a menu add-on. “It’s about operating in those traditional marketplaces like burgers, wings, and subs but in a unique way, so it stands out. The celebrity influencers can help drive engagement, but we must create a great tasting product for people who don’t even know who that celebrity is. We are successful because we create a relevant brand and are strongly integrated into direct-consumer businesses.”
VDC plans on continuing to partner with the stars of social media. “Everything is on the table including healthier food options,” Greenspan said. “It’s up to both us and the consumer. We may lead the charge if we find an IP inspired by a particular product that we can help market. If our IPs are engaged and believe in it then we partner with them to make that dream a reality.”
Because Virtual Dining Concepts partners with existing restaurants, any challenges he has come across mimic that of the entire industry. “We launched this back in 2019, pre-Covid, when it was a more limited marketplace, but the Pandemic has generated growth. Typical challenges have included issues with understaffing or supply-chain shortages. However, we have still found success because this unique model is dynamic, strong, and fits the current climate. All restaurants could benefit from this model and what we put out is a great product and exciting brand.”
While Greenspan misses the personal connection he had being physically present on a dining room floor, his opportunity to disrupt the industry and lead it motivates him. “It’s especially rewarding to be able to create and lead from a new culinary platform,” he said. “We are helping brands develop their own voice and this concept is based on a culture of quality and creativity; it’s a way to have an impact on so many brands and help, and potentially even save, restaurants.”
The R&D space of the food industry Greenspan works within helps restaurants adjust to any challenges they are facing. “We work with dynamic packaging, sourcing or technique challenges and help adjust. We can change a menu item and turn it into an experience, or impact a menu in a couple weeks as opposed to a typical couple of weeks or year long process.
Among the more interesting areas of Greenspan’s position is scaling concepts across as many as 1000 plus kitchens across the country. This includes working with broadliner distributors including US Foods and Sysco to source product for each concept’s menu. Virtual Dining Concepts has also been on the cutting edge of developing packaging that is both green and sustainable and locks in flavor as food travels to its destination.
For restaurants and operators interested in exploring the virtual dining experience, Greenspan encourages visiting the Virtual Dining Concepts website. To learn more about Greenspan’s history in the food industry visit his website.