This week, James Donaldson, known online as MrBeast, sued Virtual Dining Concepts, the company behind his virtual restaurant brand.
In the lawsuit, MrBeast and his legal team claim that “Virtual Dining Concepts was more focused on rapidly expanding the business as a way to pitch the virtual restaurant model to other celebrities for its own benefit, it was not focused on controlling the quality of the MrBeast Burger customer experience and products.”
The complaint goes on to say that low quality products have resulted in thousands of negative reviews and viral social media posts, including this Reddit article which showed photos of undercooked ground beef.
Above: Picture from Reddit post complaining about BeastBurger
Through its lawyers, VDC has dismissed Donaldson’s claims as “riddled with false statements and inaccuracies” and says that he is attempting to use “bullying tactics” to force VDC “to give up more of the company to him” and is using the lawsuit to “undermine the MrBeast Burger brand and terminate his existing contractual obligations without cause.”
While it’s too soon to tell how all this will shake out, there’s little doubt that the Beast Burger brand will suffer from its namesake celebrity creator publicly complaining about the quality of the food. While VDC has shown no intent to relent and shut down the BeastBurger brand, the current trajectory for the world’s most famous virtual restaurant brand doesn’t appear sustainable.
Ever since I first wrote about MrBeast’s growing disenchantment with the BeastBurger project, I started to think back to a conversation I had this spring with Wow Bao CEO Geoff Alexander. Like BeastBurger, Alexander’s company ventured into the virtual restaurant business a few years ago. However, unlike BeastBurger, there is no celebrity discord to deal with, and from the looks of it, Wow Bao’s ghost kitchen business appears to be thriving. In fact, according to Alexander, the company had just expanded its virtual restaurant footprint by over 106 restaurants in about four months, which brings the total number of virtual WowBao locations to over 700 at the time of our conversation.
So why is Wow Bao succeeding while BeastBurger struggles? From what I can tell, the two brands have three significant differences: Quality control, partner monetization, and product niche.
From a quality control perspective, Wow Bao and BeastBurger are very different. Unlike BeastBurger and lots of other virtual brands which rely heavily on its various restaurant partners to source and make the food, Wow Bao simplifies the process by delivering ready-to-steam products to the restaurants.
“We ship frozen products around the country,” Alexander told me. “If you can steam the product, you can make the product.”
That’s right; no cooking burgers, fries, or other foods, no assembling different ingredients with varying results. Hearing Alexander explain it, the Wow Bao model is the restaurant kitchen equivalent of me bringing home a bag of frozen dumplings from Costco and throwing them in my Instant Pot.
Another difference is the monetization model. According to Alexander, Wow Bao’s restaurant partners only pay Wow Bao for the cost of the food, a vastly different approach from many virtual brand management companies that take a cut of the overall revenue (while also leaving the cost of food and labor to the restaurants). After deducting labor and food, the third-party delivery fee, and a cut of the revenue to the virtual brand partner, there’s often not enough of a financial incentive for the restaurant operator (which usually has its own branded business to worry about) to give the love and attention a brand like BeastBurger needs.
The third big difference is product niche. Asian food’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years but is still somewhat underrepresented in quick service chains compared to more standard American fare. A typical midsize suburb town in the US might have five to ten burger joints and a similar number of pizza places but may only have a couple of Asian restaurants (and often very few fast-casual or fast food variations). Wow Bao’s dumplings and buns are more likely to face less competition on third-party delivery apps than other categories.
Finally, one other difference is worth mentioning: Wow Bao is an actual restaurant chain complete with its own restaurants, while BeastBurger was born in the virtual world as a business concept, built around an online celebrity made famous not by food, but by playing video games and tracking his life via almost daily videos uploaded to YouTube. There’s something to be said for food born from an actual restaurant with an actual menu to one born out of a business plan to create a non-core business brand extension.
Beast Burger’s problems are not unique. Over the past year, it became clear that many ghost kitchen and virtual restaurant brands that rolled out in recent years would likely not survive. After Uber Eats and DoorDash began to more closely regulate and cut back on the virtual brands on their platform and chains like Wendy’s started to pare back their plans for virtual locations, it became clear the end of the wild west era in ghost kitchens was near. Now, with MrBeast’s efforts to shut down BeastBurger, we have what looks to be a definitive end to the first chapter of the ghost kitchen industry story.
The good news is some companies like Wow Bao and Hungry House are showing that there are other ways to operate ghost kitchen models and make it a win-win for both the ghost kitchens/virtual brands and their restaurant partners.
As for Wow Bao, it appears they will soon expand beyond their restaurant business and take a page out of MrBeast’s book by bringing their starting their own packaged goods business. This week, Alexander teased the release of Wow Bao retail products with a post on Linkedin.