Publish365 025: Branded Chicken


Chicken Wings, For Illustration Purposes

Every Friday night my wife and I order dinner from someplace. Usually it's the same place, and we have a bad habit of ordering from the same few places over and over until we're so sick of them that we can't even stand the thought of eating from them again. On those nights, we look in Doordash and Grubhub for something new to order, and all too often there's nothing new and we fall back into the safety of our regular joints. A few weeks ago we were scrolling around the two delivery apps and found a new place called "It's Just Wings." The price was outstanding, the offerings looked good, and we ordered. That's when the interesting part really started.

The first thing I noticed in Doordash was that there was no address for this wing joint. I had a feeling I knew why but we ordered anyway. Normally on Doordash when your dasher goes to pick up your food you can see their car on the map to see where they go to pick up your food, but not this time. In fact we had no idea where our food was until our dasher was "close" when we got our notification, which turned out to be a few blocks away.

The food arrived, was utterly delicious and enjoyable. In fact, I was excited about ordering from them again to try more of the sauce flavors they offered. I took our respective boxes out of the bag, placed them on our snack tables and sat back to eat and that's when I started noticing the weirdness. The bag had everything on it BUT a location. I pulled the stapled receipt off the bag and looked: no address. Even weirder was the item numbers on each line. Each item number started with IJW (It's Just Wings). Would a restaurant ever do that? No, they wouldn't. Not unless they were housing multiple brands. That's when I knew exactly what we had just ordered from: a ghost kitchen.

For those of you not in the know, ghost kitchens come in two forms. The first is a secondary delivery-only restaurant operating out of a chain. Chili's (and Maggiano's, which is the same company), for example, operates It's Just Wings. Pasqually's Pizza operates out of Chuck E Cheese's, and there are many others. Where it gets fuzzy is the ownership of the ghost kitchens. Some are basically facilitating a business, while others are wholly owned by national chains. Which are which are never cut and dried unless you know an insider. It's a fascinating example of a brilliant business model where a company can pad their bottom line by offering delivery while, by name, appearing a lot more enticing than Chuck E Cheese's (I mean, really, who in their right mind would knowingly order from the rat-focused kid casino?).

This is interesting to me because in a lot of cases ghost kitchens are simply the same restaurant you know sliding one past you because their brand might be too weak to sustain a delivery business. A clear slate with a big name behind the curtain is a good risk in cases where the national chain owns and operates the ghost kitchen you order from. Pasqually's sounds a lot more inviting than its partner namesake.

But not everyone is happy about this, and this is the part I find the most interesting. Over the weekend I got a message on Telegram from wifey with an article from In The Know about ghost kitchens. I knew about them because they're a business model that has appeared more than once on one of my favorite shows, Shark Tank, and this article did a pretty good job explaining the important parts of the business model. One part jumped out at me, though, as someone who's become hyper-aware of branding and brand positioning over the past few years.

“These infuriate me. I want to give my money to a small, locally run restaurant, not a corporation playing dress up,” one commenter wrote.
“How is this deception allowed?” another asked.
“Can someone explain why they do this?” another added.
“I’m so mad about It’s Just Wings,” another wrote.

People believed in their heart of hearts they were tricked and that that they were hurt in some way. They also want you to know, fellow citizen, that they only want to order from local places, not chains. Therein lies the most interesting part of the behavior and the reaction.

The food was clearly good in the minds of at least some of these people, and the restaurant provided that food at a fair price. All the things you can do right seemed to be done right except for the true identity of the company and that was too much for these customers to take. What tripped them up seems to be a combination of foodsnobbery, shame for ordering from other than a local restaurant, or disappointment that they actually liked food from a place they wouldn't give a second look to otherwise.

It's a fascinating study in just how important a brand really is.


Chains don't have strong brand empathy in the United States, where options are usually abundant. Chain pizza restaurants like, for example, Dominos, Pizza Hut, or Little Caesar's get their share of money, but in any neighborhood in an area where pizza matters those types of places rarely register at all to the locals. Ironically, most Dominos restaurants are not corporate owned, but franchises, but that technicality doesn't usually come into play; the "icky national company" attitude stops the excitement dead in its track even if the person would otherwise rally behind a mom and pop. Mom and pop operating a franchise is not a mom and pop to many people, mostly because they don't really understand the business world.

And the amazing part is that even when they like a place, finding out it was an "undercover corporation" is enough to get them to stop liking it. They've been programmed, and the programming worked, and the programming isn't based on anything but the brand of the corporate entity.

Ghost kitchens aren't what upset these people. If someone was renting kitchen space from a chain but was running a vegan local organic holistic crystal candle diner with no corporate tie no one would care, even though the deception would, basically, be identical. The upsetting part is the brand antipathy for the corporation itself. Savvy corporations understand this type of emotion, which is why you'll see corporations make statements that, on their surface, seem incongruous or against their better interests. They often understand that their brand is all that matters and it's the only thing they have control over, with the only exception being brand perception which, no matter how you spin it, is out of any brand owner's control.

Have you ordered from a ghost kitchen? What did you think? Did you know or figure it out, and how did your opinion change after you found out the truth?

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