Virtual food businesses: The new normal of food?
Food is one of those essential businesses, and while restaurants are probably a relatively new invention in humanity’s history, food-related services have probably been around since the beginning of civilisation in one form or another.
In the present day, food is one of the biggest businesses, and delivery has caught on big. Especially with the introduction and mainstream acceptance of delivery services and delivery platforms like Quickee, Uber Eats, PickMe
Food, and other delivery services, it has now become easier than ever to just stay in and wait for your food to arrive at your doorstep.
The rise of the virtual food business
With the myriad options of delivery now available, a new concept has emerged. Well, not entirely a new concept, but a new model of operating a food business – that of the virtual food business, where there is no physical restaurant but only an online brand presence, fuelled by a backend kitchen providing food to customers via delivery.
Virtual food businesses can vary in scale from a simple home cook preparing food on order, to a full-fledged virtual food brand operating fulltime for customers through social media and delivery platforms like Uber Eats or PickMe Food.
The Sunday Morning Brunch reached out to a few unique virtual food businesses to learn more about how virtual food businesses operate, the challenges they face, and what keeps them ticking.
Making a mark in the online food market
With social media allowing brands to build identities, it is now more important than ever for brands to set themselves apart.
Online food business Platter It Up Founder Nima Faiz explained that her business sets itself apart in a number of ways. Platter It Up curates and puts together bespoke platters and grazing tables based on its customers’ requirements. The majority of these platters are cheese platters featuring local cheeses with a selection of accompaniments, fruits, and crackers, although Faiz curates platters and tables to different themes as well, including sweet platters and brunch platters.
Faiz explained that the uniqueness of their product is one of the things that sets Platter It Up apart. Other ways Platter It Up goes against the grain is by featuring local ingredients as much as possible, especially when it comes to cheeses.
“I’ve had lots of people say to me: ‘Oh, we love that you use local cheeses and show what local businesses can do’,” Faiz shared, adding: “And whenever there is a new local cheese introduced to the market, I try to feature it in my platters almost immediately.”
Another online food business, Mad Curry Skills by Chari, explained that they set themselves apart through research and skill. Co-Founder Charindi Meegastenna explained: “We started as a side hustle; a way to make extra money while doing something fun. My husband Chinthaka did the marketing and handled the creative side of things, and I did the cooking. Of late, my father and mother have joined the team, making it a family-run business. My father is a trained professional chef, and with him on board, now more than ever, Mad Curry Skills by Chari can deliver the warmth of a home-cooked meal with the professional touch of a qualified world-class chef.”
Meegastenna explained that this aspect of her business, in addition to being flexible to personal requests and tastes, offering vegan options of dishes, and also serving Halal meat, helped set her apart.
“We do serve pork, but this is done entirely separately with different utensils and cooking stations. All our other meat is Halal-certified and our aim is to feed every community in Sri Lanka, taking into consideration all their dietary needs and likes.”
Focusing on customers’ diverse needs is something that online food businesses can do to gain a following. Little Miss Shortcake Founder Ashmita Wijesinghe explained that her baking service also looks to cater to customers with specific needs. “I focus on personalised cakes and cakes that have low sugar as well as vegan cakes and completely sugar-free cakes. I also do home-based sauces and mayonnaise and pesto jars. My cakes use things like bees honey, dried fruits, and fruit infusions to achieve sweetness while being low on sugar. This is not something many people do. I am also able to take on orders at short notice.”
Virtual businesses are not exclusively one-man (or woman) operations and family outfits. Salad Maps Founder Rishan Thambinayagam, also the man behind the new brand Mad Burger, explained that while his food businesses are virtual, they have grown and now encompass a team of more than 10 people, operating under the cloud kitchen model with the brands sharing one centralised kitchen where the staff do different cuisines, splitting overhead costs between the brands. “I started Salad Maps in my mother’s kitchen with just one chef, and we experimented for months before launching. We started in a very small way but we became popular very fast through social media and have now expanded,” Thambinayagam commented.
“What makes us special in terms of what we do is that our salad dishes are all innovative and based off deconstructed popular dishes from various cuisines,” Thambinayagam explained, adding: “For example, the Japanese sushi salad features deconstructed sushi, the Mexican taco salad is made with elements from popular taco dishes, and the Sri Lankan rice and curry salad uses cauliflower as a rice substitute.
“Our new venture Mad Burger also follows similar innovative takes on burgers, we have a range of different coloured buns, brand our burgers with our logo using a branding iron, and have innovative burgers like the peanut butter and jelly burger and the heart attack burger, which is basically a deep-fried cheeseburger.”
The challenges of building a food business online
Building a food business, particularly as a small outfit, can seem promising for entrepreneurs looking to start without needing to invest heavily in building kitchens and restaurants. But like all businesses, there are many challenges that virtual food businesses will need to deal with, from operations to supply issues, to marketing their brands.
Wijesinghe from Little Miss Shortcake highlighted the importance of staying consistent, a problem that many online food businesses face, and while this can be challenging, she shared that it’s important to always focus on experience and quality.
“It’s something you get better at with experience,” Wijesinghe commented, adding: “Even if you don’t get orders every now and then, it’s important not to give up. Marketing is very important also. Social media and word of mouth are key to getting orders, which is also why consistency is important.”
Managing time can also be a challenge, particularly for those who run their online food businesses in addition to demanding day jobs. Meegastenna, from Mad Curry Skills by Chari, who works as a technical designer in the apparel industry, commented that managing things can be challenging, particularly when also dealing with customers and making sure things flow smoothly. “In terms of delivery, Uber Eats and similar platforms aren’t an option, because of how the business works as well as how the high commissions are not being practical. We do use PickMe Flash, which allows you to send items with the driver like a courier, though we also absorb some of this cost ourselves. Dealing with customers and making sure all the details are correct for delivery as well as dispatching can be challenging, especially since we have a very small window to get food to customers once it’s ready.”
Motivation can also be something that is difficult to maintain, particularly when the business is small.
Faiz from Platter It Up shared: “Particularly as a one-woman band, it can be difficult staying motivated and covering everything from the admin work to the actual assembly and dispatch of a platter. It is definitely something I need to summon on some days.”
Another challenge that online food businesses can face stems from delivery and getting their products to customers cost effectively. Wijesinghe explained that while her business is typically done by order only, she is looking into the possibility of partnering with delivery platforms like Uber Eats and PickMe Food, although the substantial commissions charged by platforms like this, combined with the economy and the price of goods, make such partnerships unsustainable.
Faiz from Platter It Up also explained that even in cases like hers, where platforms like Uber Eats can’t be applied and products are heavily custom-made, delivery can sometimes be challenging, particularly when the platters contain elements like cold cuts that need to be maintained at certain temperatures.
Covid-19 and online food businesses
The effects of the pandemic have been mixed. While some businesses like Mad Curry Skills by Chari and Platter It Up ceased operations, choosing to strengthen internally and wait out the lockdown, others like Salad Maps and Little Miss Shortcake found that being online businesses worked in their favour, with more orders coming in since everyone was locked in.
The pandemic has led to greater competition though. Thambinayagam from Salad Maps commented: “A lot of new home cooks have recently started to pop up; this is because of the ease of entry into the market where initial investment is low. People can make food in their kitchens at home and instantly get orders via apps like Uber and PickMe.”
So what is its potential?
There has definitely been an increase in demand for food delivery following the lifting of the curfew. Faiz commented that her first one-and-a-half months back at work were extremely hectic, with her having to turn down or limit the number of orders she received at times.
As mentioned before, Thambinayagam from Salad Maps has just recently launched a new venture – Mad Burger – out of his cloud kitchen and is looking to add a further five to six brands to his portfolio by the end of the year.
The challenges of operating a food business online aside, it is always very rewarding for business owners to see the fruits of their labour being enjoyed by happy customers, and no business is more direct in this regard than the food business. With the pandemic very much ongoing and no vaccine in sight yet, it’s likely that virtual kitchens and restaurants might become an integral part of our lives.