I recently received an emailed press release with a subject line so ridiculous, I had to click in:
“DJ Pauly D Launches Italian Subs with Virtual Dining Concepts & Grubhub”
Naturally, I downloaded the attached marketing image of a shellacked Pauly D with his kingdom of Italian subs (pictured above) to share with a few choice contacts. But as I zoomed in on the eyes of America’s foremost Gym-Tan-Laundry aficionado, the joke turned unfunny. The ridiculous email became more than ridiculous. Why does this restaurant exist? Is it even a restaurant? And who is it benefiting?
DJ Pauly D’s venture claims to be the latest “delivery-only celebrity-owned restaurant brand to hit the market.” It’s not alone. You can buy cookies from Mariah Carey, chicken bites from Tyga, and soon, tortas and churros from Mario Lopez - all available only for delivery out of ghost kitchens in various cities across the US.
Each of these celebrity food brands is run by a group called Virtual Dining Concepts, one of many companies that franchises delivery-only restaurants to small business owners or commercial ghost kitchens. According to their website, Virtual Dining Concepts sells different “sought-after turnkey delivery only restaurant concepts,” mostly by attaching a celebrity name to the idea. They supply restaurant owners with marketing logos and copy, design menus to appeal to Americans at home, and connect each ghost kitchen with third-party apps like DoorDash, Uber Eats, GrubHub, and Postmates to deliver customers food from what looks like an otherwise normal restaurant on a map.
Pauly D’s Italian Subs is everything your favorite local restaurant isn’t. It’s a soulless enterprise reliant on tired Italian-American stereotypes thought up by a couple of businesspeople in whatever the Zoom version of a board room is.
As much as one might hope DJ Pauly D genuinely pitched an idea to make Italian subs, the brand’s press release proudly states it was created by the founder and CEO of Planet Hollywood, the President of Virtual Dining Concepts (who happens to be the son of Planet Hollywood’s founder and CEO), and TV celebrity Chef Eric Greenspan who has been working on virtual kitchen projects since 2017.
The marketing strategy behind Virtual Dining Concepts assumes that a customer would be more inclined to buy an Italian combo from Pauly D than from a local restaurant with heart and soul. Virtual Dining Concepts bets on the fact that diners might opt for the pseudo-nostalgic phenomenon of a 2009 MTV reality show, rather than showing up for a small, independently-owned restaurant in their city.
DJ Pauly D and the people behind Virtual Dining Concepts will never remember your name and your sandwich order. They’ll never sing at your table for your birthday even though the public gesture makes you marginally uncomfortable. They won’t ask how your family’s doing. If DJ Pauly D and the executives at Virtual Dining Concepts get vaccinated claiming to be hospitality professionals, it’ll be because they figured out how to jump through eligibility hoops.
Unlike restaurant workers, delivery drivers, farmers, bodega workers, or grocery clerks - DJ Pauly D and the people behind Virtual Dining Concepts aren’t essential to the restaurant industry.
It’s the people at the top of Virtual Dining Concepts who should be scrutinized, not the restaurant proprietors who utilize their platform. Why operate just one restaurant when you can get revenue from several restaurants out of a single storefront? 92% of restaurants in NYC couldn’t afford to pay their rent in December 2020. More and more close every week. Much of the population is still waiting to be vaccinated, and dining rooms are still operating at limited capacities. Restaurants aren’t in a position to say no to new ways to make money right now.
But, as diners, we don’t need these celebrity-studded ghost platforms. We have the power to choose where we eat and where we put our money, especially when it’s public knowledge that many delivery platforms collect ~20% fees for every single order placed. GrubHub is no exception.
It’s our duty to prioritize the people who work in local restaurants over those profiting from national conglomerates whenever we can. When will we be ready to internalize the fact that food doesn’t simply arrive at our doors by way of immaculate conception?
Even if we all commit to buying directly from our favorite local spots, reviving an entire industry shouldn’t fall on the individual diner or restaurant. The government has a responsibility to make sure restaurants can say “no thanks” to a virtual dining concept represented by a man whose most notorious catch phrase is “Yeah, Buddy.” The newly passed stimulus package and the extended Paycheck Protection Program are certainly starts.
So don’t fall for a quick opportunity to gawk at DJ Pauly D selling Italian combos like I initially did. And definitely don’t order his sandwiches. We all want the restaurant industry to come back from the challenges the pandemic has posed. DJ Pauly D is not helping.