WINDSOR, ONT. -- A new Windsor burger joint is serving up classic fanfare like smash burgers, double-fried fries and dairy-only milkshakes – but without an open sign.

On November 2, Whamburg opened its non-existent doors to customers online in what its owner believes is the first virtual restaurant in Windsor.

"We did have to respond to a lot of questions, 'What is a virtual restaurant? Are you licenced? Is someone operating this out of their house'?" said Adam El-Dika, the owner and operator of Whamburg.

El-Dika decided to launch the online-only burger joint out of his Mare Nostrum restaurant at the University of Windsor campus when the Mediterranean restaurant began to see the number of customers dwindle due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to El-Dika, his restaurant has seen a 90 per cent drop in revenue through the pandemic and it became clear a new idea was needed to reach customers.

"We’re used to, from September to April, doing upwards of 150 covers in a two-hour period at lunch and so, immediately we knew the Mare Nostrum, the University of Windsor that we once knew would not be the same and would not be the same for quite some time," said El-Dika.

El-Dika says the virtual restaurant model is one that is more common in major centres like Detroit and Toronto but, he expects more will follow in Windsor-Essex as people are urged to stay home by public health officials and delivery becomes more popular.


Main Street

Taking restaurants virtual is the latest adaptation in the larger online shift the region has seen during the pandemic.

Restaurants have experienced severe declines in the number of visiting diners – being capped to a maximum of just 10 patrons indoors and four at a table under Ontario’s 'Red-Control' category of public health restrictions as of Monday in Windsor-Essex.

Fewer diners paired with more people working online from home has Main Street businesses looking at a fuzzy picture.

Filip Rocca, the president of the Via Italia Business Improvement Association and owner of Mezzo Ristorante on Erie Street, believes the rapid shift brought on by the pandemic may make it harder to attract commercial investment.

"I think a lot of people will not look to invest in brick and mortar as much going forward when people can work from home and do the same work," said Rocca.

Rocca credits restauranteurs for innovating to find ways to survive but, for business districts like his to thrive, he points to the need for more residential development.

"I’m a big believer that more residential in BIA district will help to spur some investment in the area," said Rocca.


New opportunities

El-Dika sees virtual restaurants as a way of lowering the barrier to entry for those looking to get into the hospitality industry.

"If anything, this might be something that enables those empty storefronts to be filled with restaurants that can get their foot in the door through a virtual restaurant," said El-Dika. "Establish themselves, work out all the kinks of their concept and say, 'Hey, we’re ready to take the plunge' and open up a storefront."

So far, the Whamburg concept has been well-received in its early days according to El-Dika. Orders are taken online only, cooked up in the Mare Nostrum kitchen and delivered via several food delivery services.

El-Dika says it is an opportunity to add to the dining landscape in the region which sees the online-only burger joint partner with the Butcher of Kingsville for its beef supply.

Rocca believes virtual restaurants may be another way to help restauranteurs make ends meet but, believes the dine-in experience will not be going out of style any time soon.

"I think a lot of people are still wanting to go out and experience the dining experience in the city," said Rocca.