Back in the old days of 2019, you’d visit a restaurant to chat with the bartender, see a familiar waiter, and enjoy a favorite dish. Now that restaurant might actually be a ghost kitchen — no bartender, no waiter, and maybe a completely new dish, too.
Many top restaurateurs are trying out ghost concepts to weather the pandemic, and some are considering keeping on even after it ends. Ghost kitchens lack the typical infrastructure of servers, table service, and so on. Instead, this is a virtual restaurant restricted to mere takeout and delivery and restrained primarily by budget and imagination, and frequently a departure from a chef’s typical repertoire. It’s ideal for the low-touch COVID-19 age, when customers are leery of dining in but, perhaps, a captive and forgiving audience for experiments.
Take Jeremy Sewall, who runs mainstays such as Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34. His newest concept has nothing to do with New England seafood. Instead, he’s rolling tacos at La Ventana, a ghost kitchen inside the Burlington branch of ICOB. He makes economic use of ICOB’s existing seafood inventory with haddock and shrimp tacos but has created non-seafood dishes, too — like a creamy, spicy queso with chorizo and scallions. You won’t find a chatty waiter rhapsodizing about its brilliance, though.
For Sewall, the motivation was twofold, involving both money and morale.
“One, you’re just trying to generate sales and drive some guests through your restaurant and reach out to guests who might not interact with your restaurant otherwise. They might not feel like a lobster roll,” he says.
Also, it was a matter of engaging staff at loose ends — a sous chef is from Mexico and makes great tacos — with a new project during a chilling time. The new micro-venture also let him bring back hourly employees who needed paycheck, he says.
In the South End, restaurateurs Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer recently opened Ghost King Thai, a ghost kitchen specializing in spicy, Bangkok-style fried chicken. They are two of the city’s top chefs, known for legendary restaurants including Coppa, Little Donkey, Toro (which now houses Ghost King’s operations), and Uni.
Ghost King is the culinary equivalent of Robert De Niro appearing in “Meet the Parents.” Their website intentionally looks like a cross between a dial-up Geocities blog and a Times Square funhouse. The menu is tiny; take it or leave it. That whimsy is the point, says Oringer. With a ghost kitchen, he’s unshackled by expectations and convention.
“We can put anything we want out there because we’ve gone out on a limb. It’s not user-friendly. It looks like something from 15 years ago where you press the wrong button and you get a virus,” he says of their online branding. “That’s what we were looking for. It’s been fresh air, for me anyway.”
It’s not all fun and games: The concept has allowed them to bring back furloughed employees. Oringer is also working on launching a Uni food truck and now offers Uni’s meals above the restaurant, inside the Eliot Hotel’s vacant guest rooms.
“We’ll be as scrappy as we can to get through the winter,” he says.
In Dorchester, chef Cara Nance operates takeout-only Stalk within the Lower Mills Tavern. The plant-based ghost kitchen shares a space — but not a grill — with the pub. The Tavern is a hit, and this is a safe way for her to test a passion project by word of mouth, without gambling on an entirely new restaurant.
It opened in October, and she’s pleased with the results.
“There’s a market there. I was able to try to expose [customers to my food] without trying to open a brand-new restaurant in the middle of pandemic. It’s the best version of R&D and testing for how a plant-based restaurant would do. Since we were able to utilize it as just a takeout platform, we can see on a daily basis what’s selling and what’s not,” she says.
Someday, she might open Stalk as its own, traditional restaurant.
“The big dream is that one day we take Stalk to the next level and have it as a free-standing restaurant. As of right now, this is the best way for us to put the feelers out and see how people respond. So far it’s doing pretty well, considering it’s hush-hush,” she says, benefiting from housebound customers eager to try something new.
Ronald Liu is doing the same thing with Mikkusu, a ghost kitchen pop-up in Central Square’s much-loved Cuchi Cuchi space, which closed during the pandemic. It’s run by a team who will eventually launch Cloud & Spirits, a New American restaurant and bar slated for the spring. (Liu runs other brick-and-mortar spaces, such as Love Art Sushi.)
For now, a ghost kitchen was a safe bet not only for customers but for his internal team — akin to taking a Broadway show to Boston before heading to Manhattan.
“It was a stress test, trying to build chemistry between our chef and the back-of-house team, front-of-house operations — and bring some revenue and excitement in to really feel out the bones of the place. We took over Cuchi Cuchi. It’s a huge local fan favorite, but the building is older — plumbing, electrical. When we get closer to a full opening we won’t have surprises,” he says.
Cloud & Spirits will offer a different menu; this one is designed for takeout and delivery and is designed to be short term, offering Japanese sandwiches (mandarins, zucchini katsu) and pickled sides.
Liu says that ghost kitchens are positive in the short term, but they’re an easy way for absent operators to make a profit. They’ve also become popular with non-chefs: In recent months, concepts from celebrities such as rapper Tyga (chicken bites) and DJ Steve Aoki (pizza), among others, have cropped up around the city. It’s like Planet Hollywood. Just as Sylvester Stallone probably wasn’t flipping your burger, chances are Tyga isn’t hand-breading your chicken every night. Whether that matters is up for debate.
“I think it’s the motivation of the brand and the menu. If it’s a chef helming it, the accountability will be there because of pride,” Liu says. “But if you franchise a concept off to someone else, that operator could be wonderful. But we also know in this industry that if there’s no pride in ownership, with turnover, new staff, and training, there’s a lot of room for that quality to dip.”
T.K. Pillan is counting on that not to be so. He just opened a branch of Más Veggies Taqueria in Harvard Square. It’s a plant-based, virtual, Mexican offshoot of his larger chain, the California-based fast-casual Veggie Grill. The Newton native sees ghost kitchens as a natural evolution toward digital ordering, delivery, and convenience — even though he doesn’t rule out opening brick-and-mortar branches down the line.
In the meantime, he tries to replicate the conviviality of actual restaurants with a marketing team that engages customers on social media, especially Instagram, and employs a staffer who monitors guest feedback. And while delivery costs typically eat away at a restaurant’s bottom line because of surcharges, a virtual restaurant has lower costs overall. There are no servers, hosts, and dining rooms to maintain.
“We make up delivery costs on lack of overhead,” he says.
Other chefs are committed to ghost kitchens for the long haul, such as Gavin Lambert, once a chef at Woods Hill Table in Concord, and his wife, Rachel Amiralian-Lambert. When Gavin found himself without work because of COVID-19, he launched WECO Hospitality, with ghost kitchens in Somerville and Acton — and plans are underway for more. Meals are delivered in Somerville; in Acton, there’s a curbside option. They share weekly menus every Thursday at 8 p.m., and guests can order as many as they like. Dinners such as pork tenderloin and chili are prepped and packaged for quick reheating.
“We’re a five-days-a-week solution for dinner,” says Rachel. And while guests might miss the typical interactions of a restaurant, she says that repeat clients have begun to form relationships with her (she and Gavin tuck notes into each meal and sometimes slide in a gratis dish), as well as with her delivery team.
She also hopes their model allows families to have more time together and to talk about dishes; Gavin writes a personal message explaining each recipe for guests — the equivalent of a waiter stopping by a table to explain the chef’s passion for mushroom foraging or orange wine.
“People’s favorite part is getting a note from Gavin. They get to know him through these, and kids love them, too. I’ve talked to families who come to WECO and say they gather around their kitchen island, and their kids are reading the reheating instructions out loud,” she says.
In fact, she even manages to make reheating food sound downright romantic.
“By creating that experience and asking people to reheat for five minutes pushes them to sit down around the table together and spend time. When you get pizza to go, it all comes together; you eat it out of the box and sit on the couch. We create this experience for the families who order from us that encourages them to spend time together. If we can do the heavy lifting, dinner is ready in 10 minutes,” she says.
WECO has an active social media presence, which functions as a COVID-era lounge area; clients tag one another and swap meal plans.
“While we can’t have people in here dining, we encourage that same kind of communal aspect,” she says. The duo have no plans to launch a brick and mortar.
“We’re ghost kitchen all the way,” she says.
And even for those who dream of opening a traditional restaurant someday, ghost kitchens have brightened up a frightening year.
“This is a good way for chefs, restaurant owners, and people in the industry to keep fighting to stay alive, because I feel like the industry has become an endangered species,” says Nance, the chef at Stalk. “Some of our favorite places will never open again because of this pandemic. This is a way for people to have these passion projects.”