Guac Shop Mexican Grill co-owners Patrick O'Halloran, Sergio DeCiantis and...

Guac Shop Mexican Grill co-owners Patrick O'Halloran, Sergio DeCiantis and Matthew Tesoriero showing off some of the takeout items offered on their menu in their "ghost kitchen" in Seaford. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Last January, when the pandemic was still just news trickling in from overseas, a new dish took shape in the kitchen of Local Burger Co. in Patchogue: crispy wings. The smell of chicken sizzling in hot oil might waft into the dining room, tempting those sitting on barstools or at a high-top, but no one could order them—wings were not on Local Burger’s menu. Instead, as orders ticked in from DoorDash, they were fried to a brittle crunch, slathered with hot sauce, teriyaki sauce or nothing at all, then nestled into cardboard cartons for delivery. Each order was sealed, not with a sticker that read Local Burger Co., but instead one with another name, Crispy’s Wings & Fries Delivered.

“We tried to create this imaginary place. Then poof, the wings would arrive on your doorstep.”

Alyssa Martino

 "We had always loved the idea of chicken wings, but didn’t feel it was part of our brand," said Alyssa Martino, one of Local Burger’s co-owners. For years, she and her partners had heard about ghost kitchens—that is, restaurants with zero street presence, only showing themselves in delivery apps. "Even before the pandemic hit, we found ghost kitchens fascinating. It seemed like the future. And then it clicked—I think it could work in our Patchogue store."

The team at Local Burger worked to perfect wings that would stay crisp during delivery, augmenting them with fries and other comfort foods such as mac-and-cheese. When Crispy’s launched in mid-January, the orders poured in. "We tried to create this imaginary place. Then poof, the wings would arrive on your doorstep," Martino said. The launch of Crispy’s also cost a fraction of what it takes to roll out a new concept with its own kitchen. "The same person making your burger is making the wings. It was superseamless."  

Manager Alyssa Martino in the "ghost kitchen" where Crispy's Wings...

Manager Alyssa Martino in the "ghost kitchen" where Crispy's Wings are made inside Local Burger in Patchogue. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

"Ghost kitchen" is an evocative term, one that stirs the imagination but is something of a misnomer, for it refers to a kitchen-within-a-kitchen, as at Local Burger, or, more typically, a stand-alone satellite location of an established brand. In the year or two before the coronavirus appeared, these virtual kitchens cropped up in commandeered catering kitchens, corners of working restaurant kitchens, or even mobile trailers situated in parking lots that serve as commissaries, cooking the food of multiple brands under the same roof. Long Islanders had their first taste of a virtual restaurant this spring, when a place called Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings suddenly appeared in their delivery apps. As it turns out, Pasqually’s was a sub-brand of Chuck E. Cheese that operated mostly out of that pizza chain’s kitchens.

" ‘Ghost kitchens’ is a sexy term, but we call them ‘kitchen centers,’ " said Atul Sood, chief operating officer for Kitchen United, one of the earliest players on the scene. It was three years ago when Kitchen United took over a former kitchen of the shuttered Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Pasadena, California, and converted it into a kitchen serving a dozen or so companies. From a web page organized by Kitchen United, from a delivery app, or, less commonly, a window facing the street—eaters could order ramen, bao, a pastrami sandwich, poke, pizza or gyro (the last from Halal Guys, a chain that uses virtual kitchens across the country) from the same place. Each brand has its own cooks and line, separated by dividers, but tasks such as receiving food deliveries or expediting orders are handled by Kitchen United staff, cutting down on the logistical and labor expenses. "What we do for the restaurant operator is help them expand their footprint to a new location with very little spend," Sood said.

Or research. Kitchen United combs through data to identify new markets and promising cuisines for restaurateurs, and has since expanded the model to Chicago, Scottsdale, Arizona, and Austin, Texas; it had also leased space in New York City. Even before the pandemic, the food-delivery market in the United States was forecast to grow from $82 billion in 2018 to $200 billion by 2025, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan. Factor in the sudden pivot to takeout earlier this spring, and there is little ambiguity about the midterm prospects for virtual kitchens. This is especially true as labor, food and leasing costs continue to rise and conglomerates such as Uber are harvesting data to create new, app-only restaurant brands by measuring demand against gaps in local dining opportunities.

A more old-school approach was taken by Matt Prince, owner of the multitier hospitality playground Vienna of Roslyn, who laid the same sort of groundwork. When Prince had leased the landmark 19th-century building in 2018, he first ran it as a restaurant and nightclub before segueing to special events, growing the business to $1 million a year. The pandemic caused a domino fall of cancellations, and so Prince—who had started or overseen 14 bars and restaurants in his 30 years in the business—began to mull over his options.

"I drove around and said, ‘There’s no barbecue! There’s Chinese, there’s steakhouses, there’s bagels. Barbecue was missing, and I was like, oh my God!’ "

Prince huddled with a chef he had worked with, Matthew Birnbaum, to hone the concept for a new barbecue spot operating from Vienna. In a whirlwind, he retrofitted the kitchen, bringing in new refrigerators, freezers and a couple of smokers. The rub: Uncle Steve’s House of BBQ, as it was now known, would be takeout or delivery only. Specifically, delivery by Prince himself, from his Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

Chef Matthew Birnbaum, left, and owner Matt Prince, of Uncle Steve's...

Chef Matthew Birnbaum, left, and owner Matt Prince, of Uncle Steve's House of BBQ in Roslyn. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

If, that is, he could find your house in the dark. "I bit off a bit more than I could chew," he admitted. His initial delivery rounds on Sept. 1 and 2 were supposed to end by 8 p.m. but lasted until midnight.

Even though he was hours later than expected, Uncle Steve’s earned rave reviews in online foodie groups. Only two days into deliveries, Prince, who was previously unaware of the concept of ghost kitchens, marveled at the quick success of a venture that required little more than new equipment and getting the word out on social media, as he did in long, impassioned Facebook posts.

"You can very easily make a good living doing this, especially with what’s going on," Prince said. "You don’t know how quickly people will bounce back and want to eat inside. If you can find a reasonable kitchen at a good price, and you come up with a great concept, there’s no reason why you can’t make it work." (At presstime, Prince announced that in early October, Uncle Steve’s House of BBQ would offer curbside pickup—and Vienna of Roslyn would reopen at 50 percent capacity.)

In Seaford, lockdown also forced the hand of Sergio DeCiantis, who with his partners had toyed with the idea of a virtual kitchen for Guac Shop Mexican Grill, a fast-casual spot they planned to expand. They already had a successful brick-and-mortar location in Garden City, one with a dining room and patio, as well as another on deck for Jericho. But they also had an unused 120-square-foot room wedged between the kitchens of their two other businesses in Seaford, the Italian sit-down restaurant Cara Mia and Spoons Ice Cream & Cereal Bar.

"We needed to figure out how to bring in more revenue and keep staff working," said DeCiantis, recalling the early days of the pandemic. About 70 employees worked for the group. "And we had this room that was always here—we just took down a door."

They also added a tiny flat-top grill, sinks and counters, and another Guac Shop was born in April 2020, albeit one with zero street signage, seats or even a counter—though there is a door that opens into an alley for pickup. "It was a test to see how well we would do in this area," said DeCiantis, who boosted the place solely on social media.

Dozens of orders came in during peak times from Guac Shop’s own website or by phone, with bowls, quesadillas and tacos prepared within earshot of the chopping and searing inside Cara Mia’s kitchen. The success of the virtual kitchen, one with so little overhead, has convinced DeCiantis and his partners—who include his dad, Carlo DeCiantis—to pursue virtual kitchens with gusto.

Guac Shop Mexican Grill's "ghost kitchen" in Seaford.

Guac Shop Mexican Grill's "ghost kitchen" in Seaford. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

 "We’re putting the pedal to the metal. We want to find more spaces. There are plenty of places that have these random kitchens," said DeCiantis, musing about the possibilities of Long Island real estate. "If you do what we do, you have to think out of the box in order to survive."

Though she also has unbridled enthusiasm for virtual kitchens, Local Burger’s Martino conceded that the x factor of hospitality— the exchange of energy between staff and guests—is lost in the process. "I’m all about the experience. My favorite part of the day is not being in the office, but being downstairs on the floor, saying hi to everyone, saying goodbye to everyone," she said. "I’m in this industry because I love seeing people." However, she added, "We’re happy to pay the bills and keep sustaining the business. It’s crazy out there. And people were ready for change."

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