Danny Cheng grew up in a restaurant family, so he knows the dedication — and the 70-hour workweek — needed to make a food business succeed.
Not willing to make such a huge commitment, though, he searched for a new restaurant vision. That’s when the idea of a “ghost kitchen” appeared.
There’s nothing supernatural about this relatively new dining concept, in which customers order food for pickup or delivery from a “virtual” restaurant with no storefront or seating.
The idea has taken off in large cities on the East and West coasts, thanks to the widespread use of online delivery apps, and — with takeout and delivery emerging as the preferred dining option during the coronavirus pandemic — its popularity has surged.
Maybe, thought Cheng and business partner Dan Homer, this reinvention of the traditional dining experience would work in Salt Lake City.
“I really thought it was a chance for the restaurateur to take back control of their business,” Cheng said. “Now you can dictate your own pace.”
Ghost kitchens are not entirely left to the imagination. The ComCom Kitchen — Cheng and Homer’s project — offers its entrepreneurial tenants commercial kitchen space and a retail market where they can sell their products.
They launched in the middle of the pandemic at a time when other restaurants had been forced to close dine-in operations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It was an opportunity to show customers what gourmet dining with little or no social interaction can be.
As part of the kitchen project, Cheng and Homer also opened their own virtual restaurant: Ghost Sushi, inside the space at 67 W. 1700 South in Salt Lake City’s Ballpark neighborhood. The poke bowl and sashimi spot is open Wednesday through Saturday for preorders.
The ability for restaurateurs to work independently, set their own hours and have assured work and revenue are some of the benefits of this concept, said Cheng, who has little doubt about its sustainability.
The approach is so popular that companies like DoorDash launched their own kitchens in California, and the distributor U.S. Foods started a program to help run promising ghost kitchen concepts with technical support and optimization.
Traditional commercial kitchens are strictly functional spaces, usually isolated from the city buzz, and coexist among warehouses on the outskirts of towns.
Spaces like ComCom challenge that rule. Rents are typically higher, ranging between $700 and $1,100 a month, but businesses that sign on are able to use kitchen space and sell their packaged products inside the market, which is open to the public and offers an additional revenue stream.
That added growth possibility and a sense of community might outweigh the steeper fee.
Food truck owners, for example, Cheng said, won’t have to drive to another spot after cooking items in the commissary. They can sell from the parking lot.
Streusel, a bakery that started in 2018 selling wholesale and participating at farmers markets in Salt Lake City, opened inside ComCom this month. Flexible scheduling and the interaction with other food startups are what attracted founders Andrew Corrao and Marissa Bean.
“They cater our needs to our business so we are able to thrive and succeed,” Corrao said. Every morning — except on Tuesdays — Streusel sells breakfast rolls and pastries from ComCom. Favorites so far are the cheddar hash browns and a baked egg in a roasted garlic brioche along with the simple, yet perfected, chocolate chip cookie.
Diversifying the restaurant scene
COVID-19 is reshaping the restaurant business.
In February, before the economic pullback, 19% of consumption at full-service restaurants in the U.S. was off-premises, but this number skyrocketed to 55% in June, even when dining areas reopened, according to a report from NPD, a market research consultant.
“The way people go out and dine out has completely changed. I’m not sure if people will go back to dine out the way they used to,” Cheng, of ComCom Kitchen, said. “I feel like people will be more comfortable with delivery or contactless pickup. We really think ghost kitchens can take off even after COVID.”
While the ghost kitchen idea is fairly new in Salt Lake City, the concept has had a close sibling — the kitchen incubator — operating several blocks away at Square Kitchen, 751 W. 800 South.
It opened in May 2018 and offers food entrepreneurs a place to test their product before launching a brick-and-mortar business, said co-owner and Salt Lake City Council member Ana Valdemoros.
This space fills a gap in commercial kitchens identified by the Salt Lake City Sustainability Department, which offered seed funds to start the project, she said. The hope is to support small-business owners not only with a kitchen space but also with legal, financial and advertising advice.
“Sometimes you think your business model is going to work,” she said, “and then it doesn’t, and you are in debt and committed.”
In response to the pandemic, the International Rescue Committee also helped the refugee business owners start a community food-box delivery service. Every Thursday, customers can preorder a boxed meal that includes items from a rotating list of 15 international menus from African Caribbean grilled jerk chicken and Nepalese momos, to Korean munchies and Venezuelan arepas.
Sales are lower than last year for many food entrepreneurs, said Valdemoros. But experimenting in uncertain times is what Square Kitchen is all about.
Some vendors started packing their products or selling them frozen in stores. “The hope is that their business model becomes sustainable,” she said, “and they can operate on their own.”