COVID-19 changed the world as we know it, in many ways permanently. The devastating pandemic affected everyone, forcing us to quarantine; mask up and practice “social distancing” on the few occasions we dared venture out.
Shut off from the world, we all adapted to a new normal. We had groceries delivered directly to our doors, along with just about everything else we needed to get through the week. Our lives carried on through Zoom, we binge watched Netflix
More than a year removed its start, the pandemic is still with us. But we are quarantining less, doing our own grocery shopping, and on occasion visiting restaurants. At least those restaurants that survived.
Of all the industries that were devastated when the world shut down, perhaps no industry took a harder hit than the restaurant industry. According to some estimates more than 110,000 eateries were forced to shutter their doors with a loss of 2.5 million jobs.
Those that did survive had to overcome, adapt, and pivot. Delivery and take out became an important part of the business, in many cases the only part of the business.
With the world slowly emerging from COVID the restaurants that remain are once again seating diners. Yet, many of the lessons learned, and habits formed, during the shutdown remain. New ways of doing business that were once unthought of are sticking around.
One entrepreneur taking advantage of this is Robert Earl.
Earl Enterprises owns over 200 eateries ranging from his flagship Planet Hollywood to the Buca di Beppo chain along with the Earl of Sandwich among others.
In January of this year, Earl launched a new platform for restaurants. The Virtual Dining Concept (VDC)
According to Earl, online delivery is the fastest growing element of food consumption. Thanks to COVID most families have ordered meals for delivery and that’s something he thinks will stick around.
“We’ll probably buy one less meal a week from the supermarket,” Earl said. “Now we realize that the pricing’s the same and whoever had to cook the food in the house, doesn’t have to do it now and can order it on their way home or the kids when they’re coming home from school.
“Online food delivery is the future now,” he added. “Where there is a brand that is only virtual, meaning you can’t get this experience in a restaurant. That will increase the demand of this type of brand and where there’s an affiliation where there’s a story behind it, where it’s experimental as we are, because we’re bringing these unique foods.”
Since its inception, VDC has developed brands with celebrities like Mariah Carey, Mario Lopez, and Pauly D.
NASCAR is now jumping onboard this virtual world. NASCAR and Earl unveiled “NASCAR Refuel” Friday at Daytona International Speedway a virtual dining concept that will deliver menu items from NASCAR tracks directly to customers at home.
NASCAR sees it as an opportunity.
“Obviously during the pandemic,” Chip Wile, NASCAR senior vice president and chief track properties office said. “We focused on a number of opportunities to take NASCAR to the fan knowing that they didn’t have the opportunity to come to the racetrack because of capacity limitations or, or local and state guidelines. So for us, it makes a ton of sense for us to continue to elevate that experience, whether it be at the racetrack or at home.”
There are 200 of the VDC kitchens in place already with more coming on board every day. Earl is quick to point out however that this isn’t a way for him to simply increase the footprints of his own restaurants.
“Out of those, I think we’re about 25% of those happen to be in restaurants that we own,” he said. “We use those restaurants to test and, and to make sure on quality and training for everyone else.”
Earl is hoping to grow the VDC world, and the NASCAR brand as well.
“In a matter of months, we plan for this to be over 1000 kitchens,” Earl said. “The opportunity is there courtesy of NASCAR that a lot of small independent restaurants that have needed help can now have a second menu. We call these virtual brands. A virtual brand simply means something that is online delivery only.”
The menu consists of offerings from several NASCAR tracks or inspired by them, like the “Daytona Firecracker Dog”, the “Victory Lane Burger Dog”, and the “Darlington Pimento Cheese Sandwich.”
“I’m a huge fan of our NASCAR fare,” Wile said. “Obviously you can see that I like to eat. And so for us to be able to order Martinsville hot dogs on a Tuesday night when our kids have late basketball practice and be able to come home and have those I think is certainly, it really helps us elevate our brand and the uniqueness of each individual race.”
While NASCAR hopes this new venture will help elevate its brand, and give fans a race day experience at home, for Earl the overall VDC mission is about something else. For restaurants interested in joining the VDC, there is no startup cost, and they are supported all along the way.
“With NASCAR Refuel,” Earl said. “We are continuing our mission to assist restaurants by producing virtual brands that provide crucial added revenue, which is needed now more than ever.”