Some Boston-area restaurateurs are launching ghost kitchens

Jeremy Sewall is best known as the award-winning chef-owner of Row 34 and Island Creek Oyster Bar, two seafood restaurants where oysters, lobster rolls, and fried clams abound. 

But at La Ventana, his newest concept, you won’t be able to slurp down oysters. There are no shellfish towers. You can’t even sit down. 

That’s because the restaurant, which operates out of Island Creek Oyster Bar in Burlington, is part of a growing club of ghost kitchens, also known as cloud kitchens or virtual kitchens. These restaurants exist to customers solely online for takeout or delivery, without a brick and mortar. Across the country, ghost kitchens are picking up steam: Earlier this month, the National Restaurant Association called them “compelling,” and shared that industry consultancy Foodservice IP forecasted 42 percent growth in restaurant sales from virtual venues in 2020.

“Right now, for a lot of restaurants, it’s about survival,” Sewall said. “We’re trying to look down the field a little bit, but at this point, going into the winter, [you’re trying to find] any opportunity that you have to interact with your guests and create an opportunity for them to dine with you, whether that’s in or out.”

Ghost kitchens aren’t new: Popular virtual chains like Wing Squad launched before the pandemic, and Fuku, which recently closed in the Seaport, announced that it may return in 2021 as a delivery-only venture. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, some restaurateurs have viewed ghost kitchens as yet another pivot, a way to reach a customer base that’s more comfortable ordering takeout or delivery than sitting down in a dining room right now.

Sewall, along with fellow Island Creek chefs Nicki Hobson and Isaac Reyes, launched La Ventana this fall after figuring they could use 90 percent of the ingredients and product they already had at Island Creek Oyster to keep costs low. The menu is small and mostly features tacos filled with smoked chipotle chicken, braised beef short rib, tempura mushroom, or fried haddock, along with chips and salsas. Customers order online and either have their food delivered through DoorDash or pick it up at the Burlington restaurant.

“One of the benefits is it’s nice to be able to use your headspace in a different way,” Sewall said. “It was almost a bit of therapy in the midst of, ‘don’t order any more of this,’ or ‘keep the walk-ins tight,’ or ‘don’t overstaff’ — the nuts and bolts monotony and challenges of running a kitchen right now. It was a great chance for us to do something different that felt creative and fun.”

For Cara Nance, executive chef at Lower Mills Tavern in Dorchester, the pandemic proved to be the best time to launch a passion project she’d been working on for a while. In late October, Nance debuted Stalk, a plant-based concept that she runs out of the Lower Mills Tavern kitchen. A vegetarian since she was 16 and a vegan for the past five years, Nance said that after a few months of learning the “new normal” during the pandemic, she got the green-light to launch Stalk. 

“It was just sort of one of those ‘aha’ moments, where we said now is a great time to expose everyone to a little bit of something different that they might not be so willing to try on a regular basis, now that there’s not many options of going out to eat or trying new restaurants or going out and having a new experience,” she said. 

Available daily starting at 4:30 p.m., diners can order from Stalk’s seasonal online menu, which currently includes delicata squash risotto, herbed tofu steak, and carrot turmeric soup, all of which can be picked up at Lower Mills Tavern or delivered through Uber Eats, DoorDash, Caviar, and Postmates.

Dishes from Stalk
Dishes from Stalk. —Stalk

While ghost kitchens can offer a creative outlet without the overhead costs that come with a brick and mortar, Nance called the reliance on delivery apps, such as Door Dash and Uber Eats, a “double-edged sword.”

“On the negative side, yes, as a business we have to pay a specific percentage to have these third-party apps come in and offer their services,” she said. “And there’s a small percentage of money that we could be earning in profit that’s going toward paying these companies to be in partnership with us. But on the other side of that, it’s also broadening the ability that people have to be able to have our food delivered to their doorstep. … For us, it’s the easiest way to get as much of our food to as many people as possible.”

Ronald Liu, co-founder of the Love Art brand (Poke by Love Art, Love Art Sushi) has ample experience launching ghost kitchens. In July 2019, he started Nani!? Chick’n Bunz, a fried chicken sandwich concept that, after a brief pop-up period, was only available through Uber Eats. He launched Okinawa Boba Co. shortly after the shutdown in March, selling boba tea through Love Art’s online ordering platforms. (Okinawa now has a restaurant in Hartford, Conn.)

Liu believes that ghost kitchens allow for easier entry into the market, but he also acknowledged they can be tough to execute.

“You have to work two to three times harder to achieve the same amount of sales as a brick and mortar,” Liu said. “Obviously there’s a trade off with lower overhead and such, but it’s hard to scale. I think with ghost kitchens, they’re going to be more like a pop-up, like a chef having a passion project they want to do. But it’s going to be really tough from a long-term sustainability standpoint.”

For chefs who are used to plating a dish for a customer in the next room, there’s the added difficulty of making takeout-friendly food.

“I’m going to make this dish and put it on a plate and somebody’s going to eat it,” Sewall said. “[As a ghost kitchen], now it’s going to go in a to-go container and somebody’s going to take it home. Do I put the sauce on it? Do I put the sauce on the side? What container is going to work best to make sure I’m giving the best chance I have for people to enjoy this product? Once it leaves the building, you’ve lost control over it.”

Despite the unique challenges in an already excruciating year, these three restauranteurs are giving ghost kitchens a go. In fact, Liu and his new consulting company, Blackfin Collective, plan to introduce two more next year: MIKKUSU, which is set to launch in early January, will focus on pork katsu, zucchini katsu, egg salad, and other sandwiches made with freshly baked shokupan, or Japanese milk bread; and Taico, which launches soon after, will offer Taiwanese-inspired tacos: one featuring birria-style, slow-cooked Taiwanese brisket and another made with vegetarian five-spice tofu. But while Liu believes the pandemic has contributed to the proliferation of these virtual restaurants, he doesn’t think they’re going to replace traditional restaurants.

Sewall agreed.

“Ghost kitchens aren’t going to save the restaurant industry,” he said. “I think that they’re a nice way to give people a better opportunity to survive.”

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Rebecca R. Ammons

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