In fall 2021, Inspire Brands lifted the lid on a ghost concept unlike any other. The company’s “Alliance Kitchen” marked the first dark kitchen owned and operated by a multi-brand restaurant company. Nestled in Inspire’s Atlanta backyard, it features food from each of the group’s restaurants—except for Dunkin’. So customers can order through Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings’, Jimmy John’s, Sonic Drive-In’s, and Rusty Taco’s respective online ordering platforms, or via third-party apps.
The build boasted a segmented kitchen and cross-trained workforce. Consider it a digital, virtual manifestation of the co-branded spaces that have long infiltrated quick service. In addition to providing choice, there were other familiar goals. Compared to five standalone restaurants, Alliance’s setup reduced labor requirements by 54 percent; cut square footage needs by 19 percent; decreased equipment costs by 45 percent; and sliced energy consumption north of 50 percent. Catering to third-party delivery drivers, the ghost kitchen also built a lounge with heated pickup lockers, free WiFI, charging stations, and complimentary Dunkin’ coffee.
And that was hardly the end of this chapter for Inspire. Alliance has also served as a testing ground for new labor models, kitchen layouts, and menu items. Buffalo Wild Wings, for one, deployed Miso Robotics’ Flippy Wings to measure potential food production speed benefits.
While Inspire’s foray into this virtual co-brand was a first, it’s unlikely to be a one-off experiment. Consolidation has continued to group brands under umbrellas across the sector (Applebee’s and IHOP parent Dine Brands just acquired Fuzzy’s Tacos) in an effort to leverage scale against the cost and macroeconomic pressures facing restaurants. How shared strengths benefit the whole will remain a lead target for foodservice. Speaking digitally, that side of Inspire’s business had more than doubled to excess of $6 billion ahead of the Alliance opening. Last year, the number rocketed above $7 billion. The company produced U.S. digital sales growth over 35 percent versus 2020—good for more than 20 percent of domestic system sales. Inspire also surpassed $1 billion in sales via third-party marketplaces. Across the company, Inspire’s loyalty user base hiked to nearly 50 million members.
Stephanie Sentell, SVP, restaurant operations and innovation at Inspire Brands, chatted with QSR about Alliance Kitchen and how it’s blazing a trail for future ideas.
Take us inside Inspire’s ghost kitchen strategy. What makes the company’s approach unique?
The Alliance Kitchen is the first fully developed, owned, and operated multi-brand ghost kitchen in the industry, making our approach incredibly unique. While popularity of ghost kitchens remains, we have curated a one-of-its-kind concept that presents five iconic restaurants all in one central location, leveraging impressive technologies and streamlined operations to ensure success. We’ve had the opportunity to introduce brands that weren’t otherwise available to an important market for Inspire Brands in our hometown of Atlanta. Its’ proximity to our Innovation Center enables guest experience leadership and team members to implement new technologies, systems, and processes in a test-and-learn environment that can then be applied throughout our existing business models.
How has Alliance Kitchen evolved since its November 2021 unveiling? What has the consumer response been like?
Since its unveiling in November 2021, the Alliance Kitchen has been well received by both guests and 3PD vendors alike. It has allowed us to bring Sonic Drive-In, Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Jimmy John’s to the metro Atlanta area, as well as introduce Rusty Taco to the Southeast. We have also continued using the Alliance Kitchen to test new format innovations, kitchen implementations, team member deployment software, and more, allowing the concept to evolve over time. The concept has proven to be quite successful among consumers as it allows them to access the brands they love through a new, streamlined process.
What are some operational lessons Inspire has learned from the space that could influence future forays into the virtual kitchen world?
We are leveraging labor efficiencies and testing additional operations benefits within the automation space. By putting many of our brands under one roof, we have been able to review each operational process or procedure used by each concept and then identify areas in which we can grow. We are also able to enhance our digital order process, menu complexity, stock-keeping unit management, and product production—all to drive more efficiency across our system.
Namely, talk about how Alliance Kitchen reduced labor requirements by more than 54 percent and equipment costs 45 percent, and what this signals about future opportunities.
We designed one central kitchen model that maps product preparation and production and allows us to successfully prepare different products for various Inspire Brands’ concepts. Our segmented kitchen features workspaces that blend together to fulfil orders for multiple brands as opposed to having five separate kitchens, all maximizing efficiency. This concept has led to labor deployment with cross-trained team members and cross-utilization of equipment, which has reduced the capital requirement to build and the energy consumption required to operate. In turn, we’re able to leverage this insight for our consumer-facing facilities and use these learnings to continue enhancing efficiency in the way we serve our guests.
How does being a multi-brand company give Inspire unique leverage to execute the model?
With Inspire’s strong portfolio of brands and shared services’ model, we’re able to apply key learnings from each brand to our ghost kitchen operations and throughout our entire enterprise. Because these brands have varied peak times of operation, we’re also able to maximize sales from a daypart strategy through our Alliance Kitchen, and we can connect with our guests in a whole new way while providing access to many of their favorite brands, all in one place.
Ghost kitchens erupted out of COVID but appear to be settling, with the brands dedicated to delivering a great experience and creating true brand value lasting beyond the early spike. What do you think this segment will look like a year, two years, from now?
While COVID certainly accelerated consumer adoption of this type of experience, we don’t see it going away in the future. What we want to do is offer choices for our guests during every dining occasion to personalize the overall experience. If they are busy and on the go, concepts like ghost kitchens provide a great solution for guests with positive economics for operators. Additionally, guests who choose to dine inside our restaurants will also see the benefit of these types of concepts which help improve operations and lead to a better overall guest and team member experience.
Convenience, speed, ease, and quality are all incredibly important to today’s consumers, and we don’t see that trend slowing down. People want accessibility in a variety of ways—and to remain successful in the space, brands will have to continue to adapt and enhance current practices to meet the needs of its guests