ST. LOUIS — You might have seen sightings of the term “ghost kitchen” floating around in stories and headlines about the restaurant industry lately. While it is spooky season right now, these concepts have nothing to do with Halloween.
“I definitely think you're not putting ghost kitchens back in the box,” said David Sandusky, owner of Beast Craft BBQ in Belleville and Beast Butcher & Block in The Grove.
With COVID-19 restrictions in place and the restaurant industry losing millions of jobs and dollars, ghost kitchens are helping chefs and restaurants breathe some much-needed new life into their business model.
What is a ghost kitchen?
A ghost kitchen is essentially a restaurant without a location: operating out of a leased space or another restaurant. It has its own website, menu, social media and all of that, but you don’t actually go there to eat — it’s takeout or delivery only.
Shortly after the first snowstorm of December 2019, Soupboi debuted as the self-proclaimed first ghost kitchen in the St. Louis area. The team behind Retreat Gastropub and Yellowbelly in the Central West End saw an opportunity to put their kitchen to work during quieter hours, so they came up with the new restaurant concept: delivery-only and cooked at Yellowbelly. (Soupboi closed for the warmer months. They’re still contemplating a return to the stage this January.)
Why start a ghost kitchen?
Ghost kitchens can provide a restauranteur the chance to spread their wings — sometimes, literally. The rolling stone restaurateur Dave Bailey opened Wing Ding Dong out of the Bailey’s Range space. And KC Bones is the first in a series of concepts to debut at the Sugar-Hi Ghost Kitchen, which is run by the Sugarfire/Hi-Pointe Drive-In team inside the Hi-Pointe space on McCausland. They’ll also offer ribs, because, Kansas City.
Sandusky’s Beast kitchens are also now home to Wing Runner, specializing in a wide array of chicken and cauliflower wing flavors.
“We could have just said, hey, you know what? We added a few flavors of chicken wings to our menu,” said Sandusky. “It would have an impact, but it would be a much smaller impact than if we can create a new brand.”
READ MORE: New chicken wing concept coming to The Grove
The separation can serve to elevate the ghost kitchen’s brand — to make it a more serious contender in the type of cuisine they’re offering — but it can also be good for the home restaurant’s brand, too.
Consider Sub Division Sandwich Co., a large menu of easy options that are much less upscale than the Polite Society Restaurant menu, despite coming from the same Lafayette Square kitchen.
You might know Revel Kitchen as the place with the super healthy but flavor forward menu started by the guy who used to feed the Cardinals. Cold smoked salmon on a bed of organic quinoa isn’t usually on the same menu as a pizza with three types of cheeses, sausage and Red Hot Riplets on top. Even now, they’re not on the same menu, but at Revel’s Brentwood location, they are being prepped in the same space.
Simon Lusky and his wife own Revel. After tossing around a bunch of ideas, they deciding to serve up “Detroit-style pizzas,” a square pizza with toppings to the very edge and a much fluffier crust than St. Louis-style.
“We did not want to change what we're doing and add those things to Revel Kitchen, but we did want to do this other thing,” said Lusky. “We are two different things, but people now are able to be like, oh, yeah, Motor Town Pizza. Those are the Revel Kitchen guys. You know, like and vice versa. So, it's really cool how you can kind of reap the benefits of both by keeping them separate.”
And in some cases, the ghost kitchen takes the ghost thing a bit more literally.
Vito Chirco is bringing the family-favorite sports bar Krieger’s Grill back to life out of the kitchen of the Public School House event venue in Cottleville.
“When people found out I was one of the co-owners and founders, they were like, oh, we miss the blackened chicken sandwich. We miss that,” he said. “And a couple weeks ago, we put up a Facebook page for Krieger's Grill, and it just exploded. It's just, it's just crazy.”
“I think now it's probably the best time to bring it back,” said Chirco.
Why are ghost kitchens a good idea right now?
Ghost kitchens are helping revive the restaurant biz by creating new opportunities to make money during a hard-hit year.
“Obviously losing, you know, about half of your revenue overnight is a good kick in the butt to start getting creative,” said Lusky.
Creativity, yes, but not as much money investment.
“It would cost us between $500,000 and $1 million just to open up a restaurant and staffing and equipment and inventory. Whereas with the ghost kitchen concept, it's minimal startup, limited staff, limited menu, low cost to get in,” explained Chirco.
Instead, they’re a way to add a revenue stream relatively quickly, by giving diners new options.
“The way that I look at it as a restaurant owner is, is my labor being maximized? Is my square footage being maximized? That's where the profit lies,” said Sandusky.
While this may be an exceptionally difficult year in the restaurant industry, the owners of these ghost kitchens say this is one pandemic change that may stick around.
“I'm even like right now thinking of doing another thing,” said Lusky. “Let’s see how many more things we can keep doing out of here.”
“The more I think about this, the more I think about like, why didn't we do this five years ago? You know, it could have been such a massive thing, but nobody was under that pressure to really figure those things out,” said Sandusky. “And so, you know, on this side, you know, hindsight's 20/20.”
This story is a companion piece to the Abby Eats St. Louis podcast episode called “Ghost (kitchen) stories”. You can download the episode for free and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We've included links below to some of the most popular podcast platforms.
Stories from Abby Eats St. Louis:
- 'One of the craziest years ever' | St. Louis restaurant goes from shutting down to winning $25,000
- From goodbyes to a good buy: South Grand restaurant gets new owner after closing
- ‘Boy, did I dream big with the sandwiches!’ | The story behind St. Louis' signature sandwich
- From park-and-dines to new menus: How fine-dining restaurants are adjusting during COVID-19
- Restaurants' best dishes ready for pickup at some grocery stores