Shape Shifters

What happens to the virtual kitchen now that the industry is rebounding?

Triptych line illustration of a restaurant and bar dining room with pink bar seats and booths, green plants and gray accents.
What does the ghost kitchen of the future look like? It's up to you.

With no real definition of “ghost kitchen,” the term has come to mean all manner of things: food trucks serving multiple menus, restaurant pop-ups, commissary annexes, and, of course, branded kitchens that exist solely to fulfill third-party app delivery orders. While at times the virtual restaurant was a means to an end (“If we also sell steak frites, or maybe burritos, will we make it through the shutdowns?”), others embraced the virtual business model from the get-go. Which, if any, will stand the test of time?

Alan Berger, along with Jesus Olaya and Nicole Zajac, runs Foodhalla, a food truck with three separate concepts: Bodega, Seoul Brothas, and Spudnation. The truck launched in October 2020 and the trio cross-utilizes as many ingredients as possible, while still putting out unique Cuban, Korean, and loaded potato menus. It’s a three-birds-one-stone approach, which is something Berger thinks restaurants should tap into. “If you have an idea for a concept out of your restaurant and you have the resources, you have another source of revenue,” he says. This is especially relevant, Berger believes, given that the post-pandemic customer is primed to order takeout and delivery. 

Nili Poynter, co-founder and president of ChefReady, a newly opened facility with 10 kitchen spaces in Denver’s Overland neighborhood, also sees customer demand for delivery growing and views restaurant pop-ups as good for her bottom line. “Even prior to the shutdown, a lot of tenants were looking to outsource delivery to a ghost kitchen. They were too busy,” she says. “I think that’ll happen again.”

In many ways, Sean Huggard, chef-owner of Blue Island Oyster Bar & Seafood and pandemic pop-up Blue Tide Tacos in Cherry Creek, thinks outsourcing—transferring a restaurant’s delivery orders to an off-site kitchen, either with a company like ChefReady or through a commissary kitchen—is the wave of the future. “Why pay Cherry Creek rent to do takeout?” he says, despite keeping Blue Tide under Blue Island’s own roof. Huggard also cautions against an oversaturated marketplace. “It’s not just that [these virtual concepts] are competing against each other. They’re also competing against anyone doing to-go food,” he says. “And how do you compete against national chains, which have the ability to out-resource and out-market the independents?” 

It felt so weird. I was running the handles of three concepts and we acted like they were separate, yet they were one.

Dakota Soifer, Cafe Aion, Brasserie Boulder, Lil Bub’s

Huggard thinks that true ghost kitchens will fare best in suburbs with lower restaurant density. He lives in Lakewood and says being able to order an excellent burger via delivery would be downright novel. Poynter echoes that point, explaining that a ghost kitchen like ChefReady can offer the benefits of expansion without the cost. “This helps [operators] access more locations and hit a more diverse population without having to invest in a new brick and mortar,” she says.

As it turns out, Huggard is opening a second Blue Island in Denver’s southern suburbs, and he’s taking Blue Tide’s California-style fish tacos and burritos along for the ride. “[Blue Tide] will live as a to-go only concept,” he says, although ideally he would love to have it share Blue Island’s real estate. “I wish I could have a dining room for each: oysters to the right, tacos to the left.” 

The pandemic pushed Dakota Soifer in a new direction, too. The chef-owner of Boulder’s 11-year-old Cafe Aion set up Lil Bub’s and Brasserie Boulder under Aion’s roof during the pandemic. “It felt so weird. I was running the handles of three concepts and we acted like they were separate, yet they were one,” he says. Depending on which website diners visited, they could order family-size paella or cassoulet from Lil Bub’s; coq au vin or steak frites from Brasserie Boulder; or crispy cauliflower with saffron yogurt from a pared down version of Cafe Aion’s traditional Spanish menu. The menus were cohesive enough that they pulled from the same ingredients and were often prepped similarly. “That was one of the few things we could control—our product usage and waste reduction,” Soifer says.

Of the three, Brasserie Boulder was the runaway success. “It was like, whoa, maybe I should have been running a French restaurant all this time,” Soifer laughs. And so, when the restaurant reopened for dining in March, he merged the Brasserie and Aion menus: Spanish tapas and paella now sit alongside French entrées. What has emerged is a hybrid restaurant. Guests still flock for the paella (a dish that has been central to Aion’s identity from the beginning) and order the French dishes mostly for takeout. “It works,” Soifer says. “I would never have considered coq au vin at Aion a year ago. It’s kind of fun doing something different. I’m trying dishes out; I’m learning and expanding.” 

The lasting legacy of the ghost kitchen is just as amorphous as its definition, but they’re here to stay—and might even push restaurants forward. “People say the industry is never going to be the same, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Huggard says. “Restaurateurs are the most creative people, and they’re always looking for the next opportunity. We’re able to use tech to get more food to people, but I don’t think the neighborhood restaurant is going away.”

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