Cloud Kitchens Help Restaurants Weather Tough Times
Warehouse kitchens may be the best way for some restaurateurs to take the delivery-first trend head-on.
Winter in Boston isn’t exactly an enjoyable––or brief––time of year. Between the windchill and the challenge of locating patches of ice-free sidewalk, trekking out to eat can feel like a daunting task. But for many restaurants' bottom line, diners’ hesitance to brave the elements can be just as perilous.
For chef Will Gilson, who opened Cambridge’s fine-dining farm-to-table spot, Puritan & Co., in 2012, offering delivery was clearly the best way to combat the noticeable decline in foot traffic and reservations during the colder months. But while noodles and pizza are perfectly suited to being packaged and sent across town, Gilson feared that more intricate dishes like smoked wagyu beef carpaccio and Berkshire pork chop, both mainstays on the menu, wouldn’t quite stand up to the journey. Instead, his delivery-only concept named Puritan Trading Co., puts casual spins on many of the high-end ingredients from the main dining room’s menu, such as pork belly and guanciale. The former makes its way into a crispy banh mi sandwich drizzled with hoisin and pickles, and the latter serves as an unexpected but welcome accoutrement for fried Chinese black rice.
“We’re not looking to replace [fine] dining, or completely pivot,” Gilson says of these menu tweaks. “We just wanted to make sure we were prepared.”
Gilson is among a growing trend of chefs who have rejiggered their menus to meet the demand for delivery. Vegetable-centric fast-casual chain Dig Inn recently announced that it would be launching a delivery-only concept called Room Service. The menu includes dishes like beet ceviche with cara cara oranges, fennel, mint, and jalapeno, as well as a baked sweet potato loaded with cauliflower and shiitake bacon strips. A few brick-and-mortar Dig Inn favorites, like Jasper Hill mac and cheese and glazed vegetables, make their way onto the delivery menu.
A year and a half into its launch with delivery app Caviar, the demand for Puritan Trading Co. has been overwhelming enough that Gilson is looking to move production for the service to his new all-day restaurant, Café Beatrice. “The difference in preparation time is key. At Trading Co., you have 12 minutes to pack that food and have it ready to go,” he says. “The moment that someone hits send on their phone, that ticket’s printing in our kitchen. That was a huge learning curve for us.”
Kitchen United, a company that currently operates two culinary centers in Pasadena and Chicago, wants to minimize the learning curve between brick-and-mortar and delivery for chefs like Gilson. By the end of 2019, the company plans to open between 8 and 10 new warehouse kitchens––commonly called “cloud” or “ghost” kitchens––in cities including Austin, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Scottsdale.
“To be honest, if we opened up twice as many locations, we still wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand we’re seeing,” says CEO Jim Collins. KU’s typical partner is a “chef who has already succeeded in running a business within the four walls of their own restaurant, but who needs to meet consumers where they are”––which in many cases, is on their couches. The culinary centers are fully commercially licensed and equipped with operational kitchens that come in three sizes––small, medium, or large––and include everything from marketing and branding assistance to get the word out about new concepts, to getting chefs set up with preferred delivery apps by region.
For Chicago chef Bill Kim, who opened Asian-American fast-casual spot Urbanbelly in 2008, the chance to have a second location based out of Kitchen United’s Chicago culinary center is an opportunity to be at the forefront of the cloud kitchen industry trend, which he likens to the food truck boom. More critically, operating the cloud location expands the restaurant’s reach to bustling downtown Chicago.
“[Kitchen United] gives us a partner that will grow in other areas around the country that we may want to test the Urbanbelly concept in,” Kim says. “We have especially [seen] growth in the next generation of customers who appreciate the online, on demand delivery service.”
Although KU’s mission to help established restaurateurs make money via optimized delivery menus sets it apart from culinary incubators such as La Cocina or Hot Bread Kitchen, the company does reserve some kitchen space for “rising stars” who are looking to start a new concept from scratch. For siblings Carol and Philip Kwan, the Pasadena culinary center proved to be the ideal place to launch Mama Musubi, which sells gourmet rice balls stuffed with ingredients like spam, uni, salmon, and kelp.
“It was a natural draw for us to test out the brick and mortar location with technology fueled for food concepts,” says Carol Kwan. “Kitchen United has truly served as a turnkey, cost-efficient solution since the membership fee covers rent, infrastructure, commercial equipment and services including dishwashing, food receiving, cold storage and other necessities.”
Kwan says that she and her brother have already been approached by both developers and commercial agents with opportunities for brick and mortar locations to expand Mama Musubi, but that they aren’t actively looking to open up a restaurant space.
“Since we have been one of the early adopters at Kitchen United, we believe in how this business model works for us to be able to open a brick and mortar spot with very little overhead,” he says. “All we have to focus on was our food and the brand.”