Clickbait restaurants: Ghosting the traditional delivery model

Hosted by

In search of a quick meal after a long day, journalist Emilie Friedlander stumbles upon a pizza joint with a curious origin story. Photo by Shutterstock.

Shortly before Christmas, and in a cooking rut, journalist Emilie Friedlander scrolled through Doordash looking for a new dish or restaurant to whet her appetite. An eye-grabbing entry called “F*cking Good Pizza” made her stop in her tracks. 

Her curiosity about a brand she had never heard of before, with a fair amount of hubris and equal amounts of enigma, led her on a wild goose chase with a surprising discovery. Friedlander, an independent journalist and contributing editor at VICE, documented her odyssey in a piece for the latter called “The Mysterious Case of the F*cking Good Pizza,” and in an episode of the podcast she co-hosts, The Culture Journalist

Friedlander speaks with “Good Food” about her uncanny journey, clickbait restaurants, and what “F*cking Good Pizza” has in common with former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. 

KCRW: If you type “F*cking Good Pizza” into your web browser, we find that it's offered across most delivery platforms. Explain how you came upon it.

Emilie Friedlander: “I was looking for something to eat one night when I was tired after work a few days before Christmas, and I was on Doordash scrolling and I see this listing for ‘F*cking Good Pizza.’ I was surprised, obviously, by the name. And also surprised because I live in Durham, North Carolina currently. It's a small place. I typically keep on top of what restaurants are opening up, and I had never heard of this one before. And I actually texted a friend who works at the local paper editing culture stories and asked if she knew what it was, and she had never heard of it either. 

But then I kept on Googling and eventually started finding that there were ‘F*cking Good Pizzas’ not just in Durham, but in many different cities in the United States. I counted dozens of locations, I think 42 in total, some as far as Australia, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates. And my hunch, since I had been hearing a lot about virtual restaurants during the pandemic, was that maybe this was some kind of virtual restaurant brand. Or some company that was creating ‘F*cking Good Pizza’ and other brands I started to find similar to it, and then was licensing them off to restaurants.”

You uncovered dozens of these locations. Did you eventually find an address?

“What I found was that a lot of the listings did share an address with a brick and mortar restaurant. But what I did notice was that a lot of them also traced back to buildings that seem to be ghost kitchens, or what people call ‘cloud kitchens’ or ‘shared kitchens.’ 

And I also found that an unusual number of these different brands, not just ‘F*cking Good Pizza’ but others like it, were tracing back to a building in Los Angeles, actually 1842 West Washington Boulevard. And that address, it turns out, was listed as the primary address of a company called Cloud Kitchens, which is owned or run primarily by Uber co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick.” 

So is there a company that it goes back to called City Storage Systems?

“Yeah, City Storage Systems is a company that is the parent company of Cloud Kitchens. You could call it a real estate company, a holding company. It was founded by this man named Diego Berdakin, a Los Angeles investor in numerous startups. And Travis Kalanick, after he was pushed out of Uber, put $150 million of his own money from his investment fund into city storage systems. 

And out of that came Cloud Kitchens, which advertised itself as a ghost kitchen company. But the way that the company kind of positioned itself or described itself was as a real estate company, a company that buys up distressed real estate all over the United States and renovates it, repurposes it for these shared kitchen spaces, they say for food and retail purposes.”

If they're all over the globe, how does the business function?

“There are different lines of business within the umbrella of City Storage Systems. The company has different operations it has set up. Cloud Kitchens is the one that people will be most familiar with. Then there is also a company called Otter … that is an order management software. And then Future Foods is another arm of that, which builds up these virtual brands that people, who are either within the Cloud Kitchens network or individual brick and mortar restaurants, can use. 

In the case of Future Foods, the way it works for restaurants is the restaurant owner will make contact with the company, or many times people said that Future Foods reached out to them. They talk about the kinds of items they're already selling on their menu. And then they present them with a list of menus and concepts that seem like they might be a good fit for what they're making. 

Like let's say you’re a pizza restaurant and someone gives you the ‘F*cking Good Pizza’ menu, you look it over and decide which items kind of correspond to the ones you already make. So it's not making new things. … I call it a ‘skin,’ like an advertising skin you can use to present offerings you would already be making, or very similar offerings in a new way [for] reaching a new audience. 

… The food is basically just what you would get if you ordered from that restaurant from their original menu, but packaged in a different way. And therefore it can really vary.”

There's something so dystopian about all of this — the predatory nature of the real estate acquisitions, in terms of going after distressed businesses. And then creating a brand that has so little in common with attributes that we normally perceive as positive in our relationship to food and how we get it. How would you describe this as being different from Uber Eats, Doordash, or any other regular delivery situation? Is it because it's completely vertically integrated?

“These services actually are, in some cases, branching out into the virtual brand space, or branching out into even the shared kitchen space. Uber Eats, for example, has helped thousands of restaurants put together their own virtual brands. But it's a bit different, because they're working directly with the restaurant to see maybe what is something in the area that is not being sold, or that is maybe fitting with what they already do that they could come up with. And it felt a little bit more natural. It would be like a one-off custom virtual restaurant you create yourself. 

But this is not like that. This is taking these generic concepts and applying them to restaurants anywhere. Something that came up in my reading on the topic is that, especially [with] immigrant owned restaurants who are taking on these concepts, for example, there's multiple Thai concepts within the Future Foods portfolio, and they suggest a sort of generic Thai cuisine that is not taking into account cultural variation, the specific way that the food is prepared. 

And so if you imagine this continuing and becoming a more and more popular practice, especially on these terms, I do think that this particular iteration of virtual brands is unusually dystopian. But you can imagine a sort of cultural erasure from restaurant scenes if this were to become more ubiquitous.”

How many concepts are there within the future foods umbrella?

“They advertise that they have over 200.”

And was there a consensus among business owners that you spoke with about continuing to use Future Foods once they're able to reopen?

“Many of them had said that this had helped them a lot during the pandemic. In some cases, they said, ‘Oh, we were able to not lay off our staff because we did this,’ or ‘It saved our restaurant from closure.’ However, I got the sense that most of them would probably continue only as long as they needed to, and maybe in some cases, might actually take the lessons they learned from working with Future Foods and apply it to making their own virtual restaurant brands that they could design themselves. Which I think is maybe a healthier activity than working with this large company that also has, through Otter, insight into their data on who is buying what and all that.”

It strikes me as almost like the restaurant equivalent of a payday loan, because no restaurateur is actually making money paying out such a huge percentage in fees. And yet, you need cash to cover your expenses. And so you get into this circular situation of debt, and yet wanting those orders.

“I think that overall, the feeling I came away with after reporting the story was just such a heavy feeling of stress and anxiety around how technology had already been transforming the industry. And the sense of, ‘We're doing this and working with these virtual brands because we don't have another choice. We already are being really hit hard by the high delivery fees. And we have to keep orders going out the door at all costs.’ And that this was less something that they viewed as an exciting thing. 

Maybe in some cases they viewed it as exciting, but more of a Band-Aid solution to ‘Well, we have to get more orders and what are we going to do? Okay, these people who come from a technology background are telling us that they can make this problem go away or help us to cut through the noise online.’”

Credits

Host:

Evan Kleiman