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Mario Del Pero’s second act might prove to be just as buzzworthy as his first — certainly if you count his celebrity business partner.

Fast casual restaurant veteran shifts focus to digital innovation — with Gwyneth Paltrow’s help

Mendocino Farms cofounder Mario Del Pero find success with virtual Goop Kitchen

Many people know Mario Del Pero for his role in cofounding, along with his wife Ellen Chen, the popular sandwich fast casual Mendocino Farms. But Del Pero’s second act might prove to be just as buzzworthy — certainly if you count his celebrity business partner. 

After transitioning away from CEO duties with Mendocino Farms, Del Pero assembled a team of restaurant veterans under DOM Food Group, a venture studio that incubates, invests in, operates, and consults with food businesses. The group’s first project is Goop Kitchen, a virtual brand operated in conjunction with actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop lifestyle brand. 

Goop Kitchen has five virtual kitchens in the Los Angeles area, and while he wouldn’t share specific numbers, Del Pero noted that Goop’s dollar-per-square-foot ratio far exceeded anything he’d seen in the restaurant industry before. Paltrow’s name attached to it certainly helps, but Del Pero noted that virtual brands can’t just slap on a celebrity name and call it a day.

Mario_Del_Pero_copy.jpg“It needs to be authentic. I think people see through that pretty quickly when it's not,” he said. “Gwyneth has three New York Times best-selling cookbooks … and then we got to spend a ton of time with her and learn how she eats. Those cookbooks are a real reflection of how she lives her life, and she wants food to be delicious but good for you. I think that the biggest thing that you need to be clear is, if you're going to be in this virtual kitchen space, you need to have a strong authentic hook to be able to drive trial. If you think you're just going to build a brand out of nowhere, you’re probably going to struggle.”

While the virtual-brand category has been rife with controversy lately between Nextbite’s collapse and MrBeast suing Virtual Dining Concepts over his eponymous burger brand, Del Pero still sees plenty of potential in the space. He points out that convenience is a movement, not a trend, and will continue to drive dining decisions, particularly in the suburbs. Virtual kitchens are perfectly poised to satisfy the demand for convenience. 

The difference between a successful virtual brand and an unsuccessful one, he added, is commitment; any operator that simply bolts on a virtual brand and hopes it generates extra revenue will fail.  

“If you're not 100% engaged in understanding that you are in the virtual kitchen space, and if you're just dabbling, inevitably you're going to get the exact same success as anyone that's ever dabbled in a restaurant, which is usually a closure,” Del Pero said. “You need to be the players that are 100% engaged.” 

A fully developed virtual brand, he added, is one that benefits all parties — the licensee, the restaurant, and its employees.

“The group or groups that crack the code on that,” he said, “are going to actually unleash an enormous amount of potential.”

Learn more from Mario Del Pero at CREATE: The Experience, where he will speak with NRN editor-in-chief Sam Oches about developing the digital restaurant of the future, Oct. 1-3 in Palm Springs.

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