Speaking on opening day of the Food On Demand Conference, Sam Nazarian, CEO of global food tech platform C3, says one of his goals is to have a complete ecosystem that helps facilitate direct communication with customers.

C3 counts hundreds of “digital brand kitchens,” 40-plus virtual brands, a digital ordering app and, as of this morning, a joint venture with actress Sofia Vergara’s Latin World Entertainment to develop digital culinary brands as components of its global food tech platform. But, as CEO Sam Nazarian noted in today’s opening session at the Food On Demand Conference in Las Vegas, the physical real estate is just as integral to the company’s growth plans.

Talking real estate with FOD Editor Tom Kaiser, Nazarian pointed out C3 counts shopping mall giants Simon Property Group and Brookfield Asset Management among its early investors. “They become fulfillment centers and really customer acquisition tools,” said Nazarian of the food halls and mixed-use retail centers where C3 has a presence and combines a dine-in experience with ghost kitchens.

“I think real estate definitely does have a very important role in bringing brands to life,” said Nazarian.

And despite the emptying of downtown office buildings during the pandemic, he called central business districts “irreplaceable” in the ecosystem of developing a customer base and relationship that lives on virtually after they’ve experienced a C3 brand such as Umami Burger, Krispy Rice or Sa’Moto by Masaharu Morimoto. Just last month, C3 opened its 40,000-square-foot Citizens food hall at Manhattan West, a mixed-used development by Brookfield in New York City. And this week its Citizens MiamiCentral food hall opened inside Miami’s revamped Brightline train station.

C3 is also working to flip customers who have an in-person experience with one of its food brands into a user of its Citizens Go app, which houses C3’s network of ghost kitchens, restaurants and dining spaces.

“Having a direct conversation with your customers is crucial,” said Nazarian of creating an entire ecosystem within C3.

Enterprise and franchise restaurant deals are another opportunity for C3, said Nazarian, such as the company’s partnership with TGI Fridays announced last month. TGI Fridays is rolling out C3 virtual brand Krispy Rice in select restaurants and expects to open digital kitchens in 170 of its company-owned stores in the U.S. that will feature more brands.

“We’re going to be in all the Fridays by the second quarter of next year,” said Nazarian. The move not only drives more sales to the restaurants, he added, but “it also changes the conversation Fridays has with franchisees,” who would have the opportunity to license C3’s other brands.

The Food On Demand Conference, presented by Food On Demand, Franchise Times and the Restaurant Finance Monitor and covering the intersection of food, technology and mobility, continues through Friday noon at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Follow coverage of the conference here.