In just a matter of weeks, Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen has gone from zero to 100.
That’s how many virtual kitchens the spiky-haired chef, multimedia celebrity and humanitarian has opened around the country to confront a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Flavortown Kitchen is part of a new company, Virtual Dining Concepts, co-founded by Robert Earl and his son, Robbie Earl. VDC trades in virtual kitchens, which the company can install at existing restaurants to help them generate extra revenue from concepts branded by such celebrities as Fieri, Mariah Carey, rapper Tyga and YouTube star MrBeast.
Robert Earl, you may recall, is the former chief executive of Hard Rock Cafe and the founder of Planet Hollywood, which was designed in the 1990s as the Tinseltown knockoff of Hard Rock, both tourist-oriented chains that specialize in food, nostalgia and a whole lot of merch. Planet Hollywood — which has survived two bankruptcies, high-profile lawsuits and chicken tenders coated in Cap’n Crunch — remains part of Earl Enterprises, the senior Earl’s company, which has gone on a buying spree of late. In 2018, Earl Enterprises purchased Bertucci’s, the pizza chain that had filed for bankruptcy. And last year, the company gobbled up two casual chains, Brio Tuscan Grille and Bravo Cucina Italiana, after their parent company also filed for bankruptcy.
Just as relevant, Earl Enterprises also partnered with Fieri to launch Chicken Guy!, a budding chicken-tenders chain that had the bad luck to open a location at FedEx Field just ahead of the pandemic. There’s no outdoor dining or takeout at FedEx Field, where the Washington Football team plays.
Fieri and Earl are now collaborating on Flavortown Kitchen, which debuted in late January and early February with locations in Seattle; Reading, Pa.; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; San Diego; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Washington, D.C. During a phone call from Southern California, Earl called the partnership between him and Fieri a “total love story.” Earl also said Flavortown Kitchen would help his own restaurants, which have been suffering during the pandemic just like the mom-and-pops.
To date, all 100 Flavortown Kitchens (more will be installed in the days and weeks ahead, Earl said) have been placed in restaurants owned by Earl. A check of the addresses of each Flavortown location finds that they are all connected to a Buca di Beppo, Bertucci’s, Brio or some other concept connected to the Florida-based Earl Enterprises.
“I believe that ‘virtual’ is one of the freshest new components that is going to keep the restaurant industry post-covid … afloat,” Earl said. “I believe that in two or three years’ time, you will actually ask restaurants when you go in, ‘So what are you doing virtually and what do you have that you’re selling to me online?’ I think it’s just so in its infancy.”
The offerings at Flavortown are, more or less, Fieri’s greatest hits, pulled from menus he has created for restaurants tucked away in stadiums, malls, resorts, casinos, cruise lines, airports and other locations where food is not necessarily the primary draw. The featured appetizers and entrees include jalapeño “pig poppers,” cheesesteak egg rolls, “Mac Daddy” mac ‘n’ cheese, “real cheezy” burgers, a Chicken Guy! classic sandwich, a “crazy” Cuban sandwich and other fare reimagined in Fieri’s souped-up, muscle-car, 426 Hemi view of the food world.
The dishes are available for delivery only. You can’t even walk into the virtual kitchen and order items for pickup, as I discovered on Presidents’ Day when I drove to the Buca di Beppo location near Dupont Circle in Washington and tried to order sandwiches to go. A woman appeared from the kitchen and kindly explained that I would have to park somewhere near the restaurant, type in the address and order from a third-party delivery app. The drivers will cancel the order, she said, if they think you’re trying to pick up the food yourself.
So I parked near the Washington Hilton and waited — and waited — for my classic Chicken Guy! sandwich and a “real cheezy” burger. A few days earlier, I had actually placed a delivery order from Flavortown Kitchen. The poor driver had to schlep all the way out to the Maryland suburbs to drop off our meals. I tipped him extremely well.
In both cases, the food we ordered was branded within an inch of its life. Sandwiches were transported in black boxes stamped with colorful logos and a drawing of Fieri, his face reduced to its distinguishing features. It basically renders the host of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” as a cartoon character, perfecting the marriage between chef and his food, both exaggerated for effect.
The food itself is “essentially being [prepared] from scratch,” said Earl during our interview. Fieri insists on it, a mandate that requires chefs from both Fieri and Earl’s properties to train the cooks in each restaurant where a Flavortown Kitchen has popped up. Based on my limited tastings, they need more training.
My “real cheezy” burger was cooked well-done, which is fine for a smash burger, but it was also oddly bitter, as if the cooks had not scraped the griddle clean for days. Both the burger and chicken were murderously oversauced (the burger with Fieri’s famous Donkey Sauce) and topped with a pale tomato sliced thinner than the garlic in “Goodfellas.”
The “Mac Daddy” mac ‘n’ cheese was a dry bowl of elbow macaroni (or was it cavatappi cut down to elbow size?) in serious need of some cheese. The cheesesteak egg rolls and the chicken “Parm-eroni” were turbocharged preparations, built on the idea that more is more. On this count, Fieri is correct. Both were ridiculous and ridiculously tasty. There was nothing “crazy” about the Cuban sandwich, save perhaps for the pressed hoagie roll used as bread (and the application of Donkey Sauce). What was crazier? I liked it.
But even grading on a curve, the Flavortown Kitchen fare doesn’t begin to compare with many of the burgers, cheesesteaks and fried chicken sandwiches that D.C. chefs have devised to survive the pandemic. In this sense, Flavortown Kitchen, instead of helping independent restaurateurs, may in fact be hurting them. Fieri and Earl’s kitchens are competing against the locals with a product that has numerous advantages: advertising campaigns, cool packaging, massive social media awareness, lower food costs due to bulk purchasing and a celebrity chef who has generated a ton of goodwill with his efforts to raise money for unemployed restaurant workers, among other good deeds.
I put the question to Earl during our interview: Does Flavortown Kitchen hurt independents more than they help, especially if the concept grows to 500 outlets (including those outside his company) in the next year or two as Earl predicts?
Earl first made the argument that independent restaurateurs could simply buy into the Flavortown Kitchen concept, or any other one available at Virtual Dining Concepts, and take advantage of the company’s scale and celebrity connections.
Flavortown Kitchen is “almost a franchise, but not in a legal sense,” Earl said. “I think we’re there to really help them, and I can sort of validate that. I have a team of 20, and all they do all day is solicit and phone” independent restaurants to join the program. He said he’s received grateful feedback from independent owners whose restaurants have been saved by selling MrBeast burgers under a virtual concept. He said he couldn’t name the actual restaurants without the owners’ permission.
But then Earl shifted gears and talked about the macro picture. He said virtual kitchens are the future for restaurants, even after the pandemic is nothing but a memory. The kitchens, invisible to the public except for their brand names and their availability via an app, will become just another revenue stream.
“I think the total market is enormous,” he said. “I think that every restaurant is in competition with every restaurant. I think that there’s no reason that the employees of Buca di Beppo should [feel] that they can’t stay alive and be in business because they’re part of a chain. Whenever I see things about PPP should only be for smaller companies, I don’t agree with that because it should be for everyone that needs to stay alive. And we all have the same problems.”
A point of fact: According to a report last year by The Washington Post, restaurants under Earl Enterprises received PPP loans in amounts ranging from $26 million to $54 million, based on federal data. But the company may have been ineligible for the second round of PPP loans because of its size.
“So I think the playing field online,” Earl concludes, “is far more even than it is out in the bricks-and-mortar world.”