Robert Earl, co-founder and president of Virtual Dining Concepts, talked about being ill-prepared for MrBeast Burger’s overnight success on the first day of the Food On Demand Conference at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
From leading the famed Hard Rock Cafe as CEO to founding Planet Hollywood International, Robert Earl knows a thing or two about the hospitality, food and beverage industries. Earl, who hails from North-West London, ventured into the off-premises space with his son Robbie in 2018 when they launched Virtual Dining Concepts, which features mainly celebrity-backed concepts under its umbrella such as Steve Harvey’s Family Food, Mariah’s Cookies (from Mariah Carey) and MrBeast Burger, which has more than 1,000 operating units.
“We were not ready for the demand that came for MrBeast” Burger, Earl admitted to the audience on the first day of Food On Demand Conference. “My son had signed the deal and I was like, who is MrBeast? He said, ‘don’t worry, it’s going to be crazy.’ We were ill-prepared.” (MrBeast, whose real name is Jimmy Donaldson, is an American YouTuber known for filming pricey stunts.)
Having a celebrity endorsement helps ignite the brand, but doesn’t necessarily give it staying power if the quality, variety and pricing aren’t there, Earl said.
Food On Demand editor Tom Kaiser asked Earl why he’s focused on celebrity-branded virtual restaurants, which could easily go south if said celebs got bad press, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement. “I think there’s actually more reason now than 30 years ago (when he founded Planet Hollywood),” Earl responded, “because social media didn’t exist then, which gives them the ability to talk to their followers” directly.
Just days before the conference on October 28, Virtual Dining Concepts announced they had raised $20 million in a Series A funding round. When Kaiser asked how much of that money will be used to catch their infrastructure up to growth versus prepare for the future, Earl said “I spent it already,” garnering a laugh from the crowd.
After noting that everyone in the room was still in their infancy as the world moves towards home delivery, Earl said they’ll use the funding to enhance their marketing and support for restaurant partners, add to their talent team internally and keep testing out new brands. Plus, Virtual Dining Concepts is having apps built and looking at other apps to potentially acquire—“but that $20 million won’t fund all of that,” Earl said.
Though Earl said there will “obviously be brands that do not resonate” in the broader landscape, he estimates virtual restaurants have the capacity to grow 10 times bigger in North America.
“Generally, if you really sort of strip out the talent and look at the brands that ourselves and our main competitors are doing, they’re safe, mainstream cuisines and food genres that everyone is eating anyway,” he continued. “We’re in the same space customers are, we’re just affording people more and more opportunity.”
The Food On Demand Conference—presented by Food On Demand, Franchise Times and the Restaurant Finance Monitor—covers the intersection of food, technology and mobility and continues through Friday noon at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Follow coverage of the conference here.