Ghost kitchens help suburban restaurants branch out during pandemic
Shaw's Crab House in Schaumburg is known as a place for celebratory dinners and business meetings, which means the restaurant has been particularly hard hit by dining room closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than trying to just offer the restaurant's traditional seafood menu for delivery and carryout, the restaurant has joined many other local spots in using its space as a ghost kitchen for an entirely different menu.
The restaurant's owners, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, collaborated with delivery service GrubHub to create Padma's Curry Leaf, which began delivering Indian dishes prepared at Shaw's starting the first week of November.
"I would not have done it if we were just having our Shaw's guest trade their experience for something else," Shaw's executive partner Bill Nevruz said. "We have to find a new customer, otherwise we're just cannibalizing our business. We have to look for a customer that was not going to order crab legs and I think Indian food really hits that on the head."
Saranello's in Wheeling, which is also part of Lettuce Entertain You, rolled out B Square Pizza at the beginning of October to generate extra revenue. While Saranello's offers 12-inch Roman-style pizzas, they don't travel as well as the Detroit-style square pizzas on the B Square menu.
"There's been more demand for the pizza than we initially anticipated," chef/partner Mychael Bonner said. "It's almost like opening a new restaurant. You have to think about what time people are eating and how do we get this out in a timely manner? There were a lot of lessons that we needed to learn working with the delivery partners."
While Bonner said the restaurant is still losing money many days, the new revenue source has been helpful. But it's been a challenge to pivot to primarily focusing on customers who aren't eating in the dining room.
"When you have a concept that the only thing that the customers touch is the to-go bag and the to-go box, you really have to put a lot of thought into what that looks like," he said. "You have to be thoughtful about what the packaging looks like. If a customer doesn't like something, you can't go out and make that correction immediately. We've got to make sure that we get it right the first time."
Along with providing new revenue, ghost kitchens also give chefs the opportunity to show off a wider range of skills. Chef Bill Kim, for example, offers a menu of salads and tartines at The Table at Crate within the Crate and Barrel store in Oak Brook, but on Oct. 26 he rolled out Chef Bill Kim's Ramen Bar, a special menu inspired by his Chicago concept Urbanbelly. Ramen specials had been running at The Table at Crate for three months, but the new menu will be available throughout the winter and is meant to provide something for diners who are still willing to brave the cold temperatures to eat outside.
"I love adapting to what the customers want or need," Kim said. "You've got to be nimble and flexible, now more than ever."
"A lot of people will order a couple of things from Ninos and some crabcakes from Catch 35," said marketing manager Beth Sweeney. "It's kind of appealing to a more diverse group of diners than what we previously had."
Danny McGowan, chief operating officer of Cornerstone Restaurant Group, which owns The Table at Crate and Urbanbelly, said that while COVID-19 accelerated the launch of many ghost kitchens, they were already gaining in popularity before the pandemic due to rising labor costs and rents.
"You've got to get very creative," he said. "Every restaurateur, every entrepreneur, needs to really think about how you use those four walls and if you are utilizing all parts of that space whether it's for dine-in, carryout, special events or catering."
Plainfield resident Tyrell Brown, who owns gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwich shop Pee Bee & Jay's Café in the Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, was already working on a new ghost kitchen concept within the mall before the pandemic hit. Virtual Bites, which is in a soft opening phase, provides a virtual food court for takeout and delivery serving sushi, bagels and Nashville-style hot chicken.
"Researching and seeing where the food industry was going, I noticed there was a lot of movement in the delivery market," he said. "(The pandemic) let me know what I was doing was heading in the right direction."
Now Brown is in talks with other restaurants that have been hit hard by the pandemic to license his concepts, providing menus and training for employees to make it easier for them to do more delivery business.
Catch 35 is considering adding an additional ghost kitchen concept, possibly ramen since the restaurant already serves plenty of Asian-influenced foods.
Nevruz thinks that the new focus on delivery might leave Shaw's stronger once the pandemic ends.
"The world has changed and we've embraced it," he said. "I think, in the long term, it will be good for us."