4 Things to Learn from bowl., Birmingham’s Ghost KitchenApril 7, 2021
I finally tried Brick & Tin’s new downtown restaurant, bowl., and I couldn’t be happier. Their food tastes incredible, and it’s actually healthy. The bowls are surprisingly filling without being heavy. The menu offerings are innovative without feeling “weird.” I like it so much that I literally ordered it FOUR times the first week I tried it, including for multiple lunch meetings. (A group order you can schedule to arrive on time that doesn’t charge a delivery fee? I’ll take it!)
I’m a fangirl, but I’ve never dined in at bowl., and I never will — because they’re a “ghost kitchen,” meaning they offer carry out and delivery only. That’s why I invited them onto the Localist podcast (click here to listen to the episode, or find it on your favorite podcast app), and it’s why I think their model has something to teach any business. Here’s what bowl. is doing differently and what I think we can learn from it:
Delivery Fee Is Built Into the Price
Bowl. controls their delivery profit margins by using their own drivers instead of Door Dash or Postmates, and they structured their base price to include a delivery fee whether or not the food is delivered or picked up. This is obviously an enormous expense, and it had to be built into their pricing model; that isn’t going to be in reach for everyone. There are lots of logistics involved, including limiting your delivery radius tightly, which risks alienates customers who live outside of it. But because the fee is built in, bowl. has become my first choice when I’m having food delivered — free delivery is a risk, but it also inspires powerful customer loyalty.
Takeaway: Consider restructuring your pricing model to offer the illusion of a free service or customer bonus.
Online Ordering Can Be Pre-Scheduled
Bowl. uses Toast to manage their online point of sale, and Toast offers an option to schedule your bowl ahead of time — I love this feature. Normally, I have meetings that run right up until lunch time, so I’m either ordering after the meeting and waiting forever or scrambling to try to order lunch during the meeting, which isn’t professional. Scheduling lets me order my lunch in the morning and have it delivered at a time that’s perfect for me.
Takeaway: Explore the features your website/payment platform offers and tailor them to create customer benefits.
Innovative Menu Options Have Familiar Names
Every offering from bowl. has at least one unexpected, delightful ingredient — you’ll find pickled daikon, kimchi, fennel quinoa and lots more. But their menu items bear names like the Cobb Salad Bowl, the Mediterranean Chicken Bowl and the Sesame Chicken Bowl. This makes the experimental flavors accessible to anyone. In the words of my CEO, who had his first bowl during a lunch meeting last week, “I don’t know exactly what I’m eating, but I know the flavor is delicious.”
Takeaway: Trying to tempt customers to try something new? Offer them baby steps to lower the barrier of entry.
They’ve Solved the “Cold French Fry” Problem
Bowl. is made to travel; it tastes best at room temperature, so losing heat during delivery is a benefit, not a problem like it is with most delivery services. Bowls taste and even look incredible, despite having been loaded up and driven around town — they’re perfectly Instagrammable, even after traveling. (The photo above had no styling; I literally took it straight from the bag and snapped a picture.)
Takeaway: Disrupt your market by turning a bug (like extended time between the kitchen and the hungry customer) into a feature.
Will the ghost kitchen concept work in Birmingham? I don’t know — these are difficult times for small businesses, especially businesses who are just establishing themselves. But I think a business built on a strong foundation like Brick & Tin that embraces change from the start has every chance of success. Watching businesses innovate even during the pandemic is exciting and, frankly, hopeful. And, as a bonus — bowl.’s food is really good, too.
Carrie Rollwagen is host of the Localist podcast and cofounder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Currently, she works as Vice President of Strategic Planning at Infomedia, a web development company in Birmingham, Alabama. Find the Localist at @thinklocalist on Instagram and follow Carrie at @crollwagen.