Why Recipe Unlimited is expanding off-premise restos

Why the owner of Swiss Chalet and Harvey's is ready to take its own approach to "ghost kitchens" national.

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Virtual restaurants and ghost kitchens have been getting a lot of attention, both for the novelty of empty restaurants serving takeout and delivery orders, and as a way for customers to support local struggling restaurants.

And now, Recipe Unlimited, the parent of well-known family style restos and QSRs like Swiss Chalet and Harvey’s, is expanding its own take on the model, what it’s calling “Ultimate Kitchens.”

Ultimate Kitchens is a multi-branded, takeout and delivery model/concept that provides a one-stop dining marketplace to mix and match favourite items and sub-brands in a single order, says Yianni Fountas, senior director, emerging brands and partnerships, strategic projects and business insights at Recipe Unlimited. The first location in Toronto was quietly tested last March, with the company going public with a second location in November.

Participating brands across the first two locations include a combination of Swiss Chalet, New York Fries, Harvey’s, East Side Mario’s and Montana’s BBQ, as well as external partners like Fresh and Bento Sushi.

Now, the company sees enough potential in what it has done so far to begin thinking nationally, with expansion plans that could include up to a dozen locations by the end of 2021.

“Ultimate Kitchens represents a unique opportunity for growth and expansion that we believe is on-point with a shift in consumer behaviour, while enabling Recipe to serve markets where it may otherwise be cost-prohibitive to build traditional restaurants,” he says.

While it was first tested in March ahead of the pandemic, Fountas says the pandemic accelerated the trend, as it “turned a lot of restaurants into a ghost kitchen overnight.”

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Fountas says Recipe’s expansion into new segments, including CPG (Montana’s Frozen and Swiss Chalet-branded BBQ products in grocery, for example), doesn’t redirect its focus from traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant networks. According to Fountas, while the model has recently worked to transform the capacity of restaurants in an uncertain time, it also has long-term impact that led to it testing the concept in the first place: it geographically expand the reach of RU’s restaurants, and also provides guests with access to a variety of existing concepts that might not available in their local neighbourhood. Each of the locations can incorporate different restaurant brands based on factors such as the the popularity of a cuisine in the region.

What sets the model apart for other, according to Fountas, is Recipe Unlimited’s IT and operations capabilities, which enable a seamless guest experience that it continually tests and optimizes.

To date, marketing efforts supporting the roll-out have been limited. Recipe has mostly been leveraging digital platforms, influencers and partner aggregator platforms to drive awareness and trial around where the kitchens are located (a recently-wrapped promo around the newest kitchen’s launch included a 20% discount on orders). Fountas says it has yet to formally partner with any agency, relying instead on its internal resources and teams.

But with expansion will come a bigger marketing push focused on new markets. The creative messaging approach, Fountas says, will focus on function and choice, showing the guest’s ability to mix and match, ending dining debates and creating “your Ultimate order.”