I live in Flavortown now. So do you. Flavortown may be an understatement. This is Flavornation.
In recent days, a restaurant called Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen has appeared on takeout apps around the country. It’s part of the portfolio of a company called Virtual Dining Concepts, cofounded by Robert Earl and son Robbie. Earl the Elder is the former chief executive of Hard Rock Cafe and the founder and chairman of Planet Hollywood and Earl Enterprises, which oversees concepts including Bertucci’s, Buca di Beppo, and Earl of Sandwich.
This is how it came to be that I can now order up jalapeño pig poppers, bacon mac ‘n cheese burgers, and more from Flavortown Kitchen, along with nuggets and tots from Tyga Bites (a concept from the eponymous rapper) and triple chocolate chunks and spiced oatmeal raisins from Mariah’s Cookies (the singer’s range is even greater than we knew). All are delivery-only, prepared out of a West Roxbury Bertucci’s.
In other words, this Bertucci’s — an actual restaurant — is now also a whole bunch of other, virtual restaurants, even as it continues to serve Italian fare. I’ll never pull up a chair at any of them, but Uber Eats will bring their food to my door within the hour.
By now, you may have heard of ghost kitchens, a growing force even before the pandemic. But these days, dining room-free restaurants make more sense than ever. On a small, independent scale, the idea results in concepts like Ghost King Thai (Bangkok-style fried chicken, operated out of Toro) and La Ventana (tacos coming out of Burlington’s Island Creek Oyster Bar). It’s a fine line between these and COVID-era pop-ups and kitchen takeovers that are basically: We have a kitchen and friends who need a place to cook and staff who need to work, so come get Japanese food or dumplings or Nashville-style hot chicken at our restaurant that usually serves something else entirely. These are plucky partnerships and compelling side hustles born of interconnectedness, community, a desire to succeed and make a living and see others do these things as well.
Large-scale, corporate ghost kitchens and virtual restaurant groups are a similar but different story. They are a way for operators to get the most out of everything they’re paying for (facility, kitchen staff, equipment, utilities) without paying for what they don’t really need (a dining room, front of house staff). It’s savvy, but it lacks that personal touch. Affiliating virtual brands with celebrities is an efficient way to establish that. Everyone in the country knows these people. The concept scales.
But does it taste good? Reader, let’s order.
It’s been a long time since I opened Uber Eats on my phone. I’ve been avoiding delivery services, whose fees take a generous chomp out of restaurants’ profits. There’s no choice here. I live a few minutes’ drive from this Bertucci’s, but I can’t call these businesses, place my order, and swing by.
The delivery time for each concept is about the same. Although the food is prepared by the same kitchen, I can’t get food from Guy, Tyga, and Mariah in the same order. I have to place three different orders and pay three different sets of fees. The same driver brings my nuggets and cookies, but Flavortown arrives later in its own vehicle, and it’s not a red convertible.
Another reason to pick up takeout rather than having it delivered is that you get it in a timely fashion. Restaurateurs all complain about the challenges of quality control when using third-party delivery services. Orders sit around waiting for pickup, then it takes a while for them to get to the customer. It’s not unique to this food that it arrives cold and soggy, the cardboard containers sagging with moisture. But: It does arrive cold and soggy.
I cannot tell you Tyga’s food is great. But the nuggets taste like real chicken, the peri-peri dust the tots are seasoned with gives them real flavor (black garlic and lemon black pepper are also available), and there’s a vast cosmos of dips to be chosen from, including a Korean BBQ sauce that I’d happily brush on meat before throwing it on the grill. The tots are crunchless where they ought to be crisp (the outside), and crisp where they ought to be soft (the undercooked inside). But tots is tots. Even bad tots. I eat more of them than I should. Our freezer contains both chicken nuggets and tater tots, and I will definitely throw those in the oven before I get a taste of Tyga Bites again. (The unintended triple entendre of the restaurant’s name is just, chef’s kiss.)
Mariah’s Cookies are better. They come in nine different flavors, including ones like lemon cooler, pumpkin, and red velvet white chocolate chunk. I get most of the ones I ask for in my order. The more traditional the flavor, the more successful the cookie. Chocolate chunk and oatmeal raisin are the top two. The box comes with a message from Mariah Carey: “I love to warm them again at 375 degrees for 90 seconds!” This makes them neither warm nor room temperature. I would peg Carey for a line of scented candles, maybe. Her brand of goddess doesn’t seem particularly domestic. She sings a whole song about Christmas and doesn’t mention cookies once. People are full of surprises.
And although my expectations for Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen aren’t overly high, it turns out they should be lower. It’s too bad: Fieri’s a mensch who raises a ton of money for good causes, and I could feel warm and fuzzy about subsidizing that in some small way. But the Buffalo wings are flabby, and they either come with the wrong sauce or the right sauce tastes wrong. (Should blue-sabi, a blue cheese and wasabi combo, taste like ranch?) The Real Cheezy Burger tastes like a Big Mac with better beef, and if the patty weren’t scorched around the edges, it would be fine; the accompanying Flavortown Fries are flavorless. The Mac Daddy Mac ‘N Cheese seems to have no cheese on it at all. And the Chicken Parm-eroni — which I mostly order because it seems funny to get chicken Parm from a Bertucci’s possessed by the spirit of Guy Fieri rather than just ordering it from Bertucci’s itself — features waterlogged, mushy, cold spaghetti and chicken that’s strangely compressed. There’s no grain to it; it’s one uniform texture. I do like the addition of pepperoni strips to the mix. That’s a fun idea.
All of this food is made by people, and these concepts are brand new, and I’m willing to say maybe they need more training or practice and it’s all up from here. Fact is, I’ve eaten at this Bertucci’s many times, and it’s not like the food has ever blown me out of the water. That’s not the reason we come. We come because my son loves the place, and it brings us joy to bring him joy. He gets a ball of dough to play with and an activity book with crayons. Then he eats the same pasta with butter he loves at home, and we all share a big slab of lemon cake for dessert. There’s a server who is 9 million times more awesome than he needs to be when our dinky tab is barely worth his time from a purely financial point of view. I wonder what he’s doing these days. I hope he’s doing well. This Bertucci’s assets, the things that make us customers, are all and only exactly the things virtual restaurants work so hard to jettison, to dispose of as if they’re not the most important part.
Are ghost kitchens the future of the restaurant industry, as many have opined? They’re certainly part of it. But they have little to do with the hospitality industry. Throughout the pandemic, chefs pivoting to takeout have talked about how hard it becomes to connect with their customers. I can’t think of anyone who has done a better job showing us the importance of this connection than a spiky-haired dude cruising around in a red convertible, telling the stories of the nation’s mom-and-pops on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Flavortown is now at our fingertips, and plenty of people will want a taste. But unless Fieri himself starts delivering, I’m not sure there’s enough here to keep us coming back.