NEW JERSEY — Delivery has become our new best friend over the past year. With the pandemic almost a year old and numerous delivery services at our fingertips, the idea of having food come to you (instead of the other way around) has become commonplace.
After the initial shock and shut downs of the pandemic, New Jersey restaurants were put through the wringer with government-mandated indoor occupancy caps and early indoor closing times. Even as restrictions have eased up, many customers still look to takeout as a means of staying safe, but also of convenience.
According to the National Restaurant Association, 68% of people are more likely to opt for takeout now than before the pandemic.
And so restaurants have begun to shift their business models to cater to an audience that wants to eat in their own homes by ditching the dining room altogether and instead operating ghost kitchens.
The term “ghost kitchen” is used to describe a facility that is designed for off-site meal preparation, with no physical restaurant for guests to dine in, or sometimes in the kitchens of existing restaurants with completely different take-out only menus. Customers usually place orders online, and curbside pickup or delivery are the only ways to get your food.
“For us, it’s all about streamlining,” said Mario LaVecchia, owner of the new Krust Kitchen in Madison. There’s less staff to hire, since the only crew are the cooks, and no need to entertain guests with a dining atmosphere. “It’s grab-and-go, but still with good quality food.”
Krust Kitchen will open in March, and is just one of LaVecchia’s entities, as the Essex county native has owned a number of restaurant properties. This one, however, will be the first utilizing a ghost kitchen.
LaVecchia’s delivery-only setup will churn out noshes like Nutella-stuffed empanadas and pretzel pizzas, apt for the college crowd minutes away at Drew University.
Some ghost kitchen setups can house one restaurant, while others, like Garden State Kitchen in Orange, provide an ecosystem to support a host of culinary entrepreneurs under one roof. Garden State Kitchen’s co-working space currently has more than 60 companies who use the kitchen at various levels of frequency.
Kris Ohleth, GSK’s founder, has a background working in kitchens, farmers markets and other establishments in the local food space.
“I was hearing the constant refrain that small business owners couldn’t find commercial kitchen space to rent,” she said. This was forcing small businesses to bear the risk and cost of building out their own kitchens, putting an undue burden on their start-up ventures.
The realization to build a place to service this need hit in 2013, and two years later, the idea materialized into 3,200 sq. ft of space, equipped with stoves, ovens, fryers, washing stations and portable tables for food prep. At the time, there were already a few shared-use kitchens, or “kitchen incubators,” across the country, but none near the Valley Arts District in the heart of Orange.
With the resurgence of farmers markets and the strong desire to support local during the summer, GSK ramped up, as more people gained the confidence to come out of their homes and follow their dreams to start their own businesses.
Ohleth estimated that, on average, a dine-in restaurant can cost $200/sq. foot to build out; even a very small restaurant of 1,000 square feet could cost $200,000.
“While those numbers are dependent on many factors, GSK makers [the partnering restaurants] are easily saving tens of thousands of dollars on each build-out,” she said.
One of their makers is Indy's Kitchen. The Latin Fusion restaurant, started by Indhira Sturdivant, is still in its infancy.
“Originally, our goal as a then-catering company was to become food vendors at popular music festivals and food fairs,” Sturdivant said. “COVID changed those plans immediately, striking down any festival, concerts and almost any large event that we imagined being at.”
After losing her full-time job last year, Sturdivant re-set her focus on her cooking business. “Going the ghost kitchen route was practical. It allowed lower costs compared to the overhead expenses of a brick and mortar, plus it can be booked or canceled at any time without a contract.”
While restaurants like Krust Kitchen are able to capitalize on delivery apps’ visibility among the public, many restaurateurs without a storefront often face a challenge with marketing. For Indy's Kitchen in particular, they have found themselves needing to go above and beyond to spread the word because they did not have an existing clientele.
Wing Champs has also partnered with GSK. The former food truck operation run by husband-and-wife duo Jameel and Nadirah Laboo was based on Park Place in Downtown Newark, but due to ongoing maintenance and occasional weather mishaps, they decided to sell the truck.
“No more fixing that pesky generator, routine oil changes and brake repairs, nor did we have to worry about the weather determining if we could open or not,” Nadirah Laboo said.
Wing Champs started working out of the kitchen incubator in 2019.
“We were able to set the hours we wanted at a standard weekly price, which made it a more affordable option,” Nadirah Laboo said. “Everything we needed was right in the kitchen, from the utensils to the space we needed for storage.”
The future of ghost kitchens, as the world reaches for normalization, it is uncertain. But Ohleth feels secure knowing that delivery will continue to have a huge presence in our lives and that there is long-term viability in shared-use kitchens.
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