Delivery-only restaurant brands see pandemic-fueled growth

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Josh Phillips, the co-owner of Espita, a stylish Mexican restaurant, holds a Ghostburger at his restaurant in downtown Washington, Monday, Feb. 15, 2021. Phillips opened a delivery-only brand called Ghostburger in August to keep Espitas kitchen running through the winter. He chose burgers because he wanted to reach new customers at a lower price point than Espita. Its been so successful that Phillips is now scouting for locations for standalone Ghostburger restaurants. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Do you know which restaurant cooked the meal you just had delivered? Increasingly, it can be hard to tell.

Delivery-only brands — cooked in another brand's kitchen and often delivered by third parties like Uber Eats — were proliferating even before the pandemic. They’re an inexpensive way for restaurants to try a new concept or fill a need in the community; a burger place might try making tacos under a different name, for example.

But over the last year, delivery-only brands have seen explosive growth as the pandemic made delivery a more popular option. Big restaurant chains are now joining the fray, hoping to win new customers as traffic in their dining rooms dwindles.

On Wednesday, Applebee’s is launching Cosmic Wings, a delivery-only brand that specializes in chicken wings and Cheetos-flavored dipping sauce. Uber Eats will deliver the brand from 1,300 Applebee’s kitchens.

It’s joining a crowded market. Denny’s is rolling out two virtual brands — The Burger Den and The Meltdown — in the first half of this year. Chuck E. Cheese started delivery-only Pasqually’s Pizza and Wings last March. In the last few months, Chili’s launched It’s Just Wings, TGI Fridays cooked up Conviction Chicken and Carrabba’s Italian Grill began delivering Tender Shack chicken sandwiches.

Celebrities are even getting in on the trend. Tyga Bites, a chicken nugget brand from rapper Tyga, and Mariah’s Cookies, backed by singer Mariah Carey, are among the brands offered by Virtual Dining Concepts, a new company that sets up delivery-only brands in restaurant kitchens. Coming soon: Mario’s Tortas Lopez and Pauly D’s Italian Subs.

Uber Eats says it has more than 10,000 delivery-only restaurants on its platform, up from 3,000 in 2019. More than half of that growth has come from national chains, the company said. Grubhub and DoorDash won’t say how many delivery-only brands are on their platforms.

Scott Gladstone, Applebee’s vice president of strategy and development, said making Cosmic Wings its own brand lets Applebee’s target customers it might not reach with its regular menu, where wings are one of nearly a dozen appetizers.