Viral Ventures On Rude Service, Teletubbies And Running On A Belly Full Of Beer

Editorial Team | Interviews

According to Viral Ventures Co-Founder Aden Levin, customers want far more than a meal in nice surroundings, they want razmataz, magic and a slap in the face.

Karen’s is a diner with a distinct identity. Shiny new yet distinctly dated, the staff whizz around the floor with smiles so wide they wrap around their ears. A homage to the American drive-ins made famous in the 1950s, its walls are painted so Barbie pink, they’re reminiscent of cult classics from the silver screen; from Grease and Back To The Future to Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas.

Karen’s is the latest in a line of venues from Viral Ventures, a hospitality company that specialises in crafting experiences that reach further than menus and ambience. With the rise of the notorious complaining ‘Karens’, customers can enjoy American classics like burgers, wings, shakes and cocktails with a side of sass.

“The appetite for fast pace and
differentiating experience has accelerated.”

With equal part food and theatrics, experiential bars, clubs, and restaurants are growing in popularity in Australia, taking their cue from trendsetting cities in the UK and the US where there has been an explosion of them over the past decade. For Viral Ventures Co-Founder Aden Levin, this shows how customers are looking for more from their Friday night than simply being fed. “The appetite for fast pace and differentiating experiences has accelerated,” he shouts,” fighting to be heard over the rock and roll soundtracks booming from the speakers.

Tucked in a Karen’s corner booth on one of the many rehearsal days prior to its public opening in Sydney’s World Square, Levin explains how Viral Ventures has become an expert at crafting unique experiences for customers. So much so that Viral Ventures is now the proud owner of 13 themed venues split across three continents. “When we create things, we think of all the touchpoints we can make difference. It’s the Disney Land effect,” he says. “While in our venues you are taken out of the real world.”

Of course, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to bring an idea from the back of a napkin to its opening night and while some ideas come intuitively, others are derived from the analytics their own ticketing platform Hidden provides. “We can see what’s happening and create experiences based on the data being collated,” he explains. Even while honing Karen’s experience, other ideas continue to flow from his lips, a never-ending conveyer belt of potential places to entertain punters.

“Imagine you can go into the Teletubby house and have a beer with a Teletubby?” he laughs. It’s an idea that is currently on the table and being put through its paces. To validate that concept, we will do teasers on social. If we don’t get traction, we will park it.”

A small group of individuals are often the protagonists behind any new idea, but the company has a mandate to encourage staff and employees to come up with concepts of their own too. “If a team member comes up with an idea, we will actively invest and give them skin in the game,” he says, as well as access to resources to test, research and create the entity.

“We do an event called The Beer Run,” he adds, a five-kilometre run that includes a tour of five breweries along the way. “That came from one of the team members. That’s their project and they run it every year. It’s in four cities and they are involved financially. It keeps people invested in what we are doing.”

These experiences sit alongside many others, each as odd as the next. They run a ball pit party, various hot tub and in bed cinema clubs and even put bumper cars on ice. There is also a Viral Foundation that creates experiences for the underprivileged and those with disabilities. Many include food and drink, others don’t, but all provide an escape from reality for an hour or two.

Having built a business with locations in Australia, the US and the UK, Levin says the lockdowns from Covid proved problematic not only on the day-to-day operations of current businesses but also on the opening of new ones; Karen’s itself was forced to delay opening in Sydney. These issues forced the Viral Ventures team to decentralise their core crew and develop internal structures to enable them to open venues remotely.

“They want to forget and be transported.”

With a clear entrepreneurial spirit and a head for new ideas, Levin has a knack for leadership, but he says that he is always looking to learn and grow as a businessperson. He affectionately refers to Viral Ventures as a theatre production, adopting a rigorous rehearsing schedule that iterates rapidly prior to any opening to the public. It’s this continuous test and response calling card that makes the business a unique operator and creator.

So, what can traditional restaurants learn from venues like Karen’s? Well, customers like theatrics and a point of difference for one. By creating a unique offering and delivery system that taps into popular culture, businesses like Viral Ventures are building a loyal customer base that follows their varied exploits.

By thinking beyond the menu and looking at emotive drivers like nostalgia and humour, hospitality venues may be able to add a much-needed spark to a stagnant offering. Or perhaps even jazz up a concept that isn’t quite grabbing the local set. If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that change can be good. Trying something new might just open a whole new avenue for business whilst connecting with customers.

As Levin says: “It’s escapism. After Covid, people want that. They want to forget and be transported.”

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