What I don’t miss:  Taking a picture with my phone of every dish in front of me and then procrastinating interminably over posting on Instagram.

What I do miss:  Sitting in restaurants, chatting with working chefs. And writing about food!

I miss restaurants!

As wistful as we get about the now lost age when we could join a crowded room to enjoy a meal together, the fact is that food delivery through various apps and services was already a booming, robust business before the economy locked down over the pandemic.

The phenomenon of “ghost kitchens” was an increasingly viable business model for some chefs and restaurant concepts for the last several years. Most usually, a ghost or “virtual” kitchen is a restaurant brand and menu that exists only for take-out and delivery ordering, without any on-site dining area. Ghost kitchens can also serve as local delivery hubs for established restaurants and chain operations to provide delivery service in locations remote from their brick and mortar operations.

Pasadena is the headquarters and first location of Kitchen United, a novel two-year old start-up that provides ghost kitchen space, as well as delivery service for multiple restaurant brands from a single kitchen venue. The Pasadena location — Kitchen United Mix — opened in February 2018, in the former space of the Cordon Bleu cooking school’s student run cafe on the corner of Madison Avenue and Green Street. The concept has been successful enough to allow expansion to outlets in Chicago and Scottsdale, Arizona with the next opening planned for Austin, Texas. Last summer, a new round of investment from RXR Realty totaling $40 million is earmarked for expansion and development in New York City and its tri-state area specifically.

In Pasadena, at Kitchen United Mix there are currently 16 “restaurants” prepping food for delivery:  Brothers Desserts; Plant B; Bad Ass Breakfast Burrito; Wendy’s; Lucille’s Smokehouse BBQ; Bad Mutha Clucka; Amazebowls; Freiburger; Canter’s Deli; Grilled Cheese Heaven; The Halal Guys; Mama Musubi; Rori’s Artisanal Creamery; Samlor Thai Street Food; Tokyo Riso; and Dog Haus Market. Canter’s was in the first group of brands when the location opened and allows the iconic deli to offer fresh delivery in our area. The last entry from our own Dog Haus brand provides bulk purchase and delivery of their signature sausages, buns, etc.

But the plot thickens …

The phenomenally successful national franchise which originated on Hill Street in 2010, Dog Haus owns and operates Plant B (Plant-based burgers and dogs); Bad Mutha Clucka (fried chicken sandwiches and wings), Bad Ass Breakfast Burritos (self-explanatory), and Freiburger (burgers) all as ghost brands delivering out of Kitchen United Mix.

Why?  For an established operation like Dog Haus, ghost kitchen brands allow for “capital-light” local expansion with a variety of different menu concepts appealing to different local market segments.  Without a long-term lease, requisite insurance, equipment purchase and rental, utility costs and front-of-house staff payroll, the potential profit margin is significantly improved over the “razor-thin” — 6 to 7 percent average — profit margins of conventional brick and mortar restaurant operations (pre-lockdown).

Besides providing brand expansion and extended delivery capacity for established operations, the ghost kitchen model also offers much less risk to independent startups seeking an initial foothold in a highly competitive market like Pasadena.

It’s also worth noting that by clicking the “For Restaurants” button on the Kitchen United Mix website home page and then a click on the “Insights” button, a rather robust trove of resources and information is revealed. These include two webinars posted on April 13, in the midst of the lockdown: “How to Optimize for Take-out & Delivery During COVID-19” and “Understanding the 5 Steps to Apply for Federal Restaurant Relief Funding.”

As a local eater, you can order directly through the Kitchen United website or through any of the extant delivery service apps that are engaged directly by the resident brands (Grubhub, Postmates, etc.) That said, you can also order online for pickup onsite or just show up and order with a tablet monitor interface in the, well, ghostly lobby. I dropped in one afternoon — masked and gloved — to see for myself.  Besides three snickering stoners ganged in a corner without social distance waiting for a take-out munchies order, there was only the back counter bustle of deliveries being prepped.

(Did I mention I miss restaurants?)

I spoke briefly with Priscilla Hernandez, who was working the counter. When asked about the rate of business at Kitchen United Mix since the lockdown, she quickly replies, “I think we’re busier …!” Given the fact that delivery and take-out is the only game left, it makes sense that the brands operating out of Kitchen United Mix were well-positioned to face the altered reality of the lockdown.

Of the three Silicon Valley tech-wonk entrepreneurs who founded Kitchen United —John Miller, Harry Tsao, and Massimo Noja De Marco — only Noja De Marco has a background in restaurants, having run and operated Wolfgang Puck Catering and Events, as well as the food and beverage department of the Ritz Carlton hotel, in addition to trade consulting.  (GV — formerly Google Ventures —  provided an initial $10 million in funding, by the way.)

However, there is some actual local color here as well.

The CEO of Kitchen United is Jim Collins.  A longtime resident of nearby Montrose, Collins also owns and operates Town Kitchen and Grill in Montrose, a 100-seat New American restaurant, which opened five years ago.  An independent restaurateur who runs a growing national chain of ghost kitchens…? There has to be a story here and maybe some answers to the questions surrounding the looming uncertainty clouding the prospects for independent restaurants in the area.

Asked to submit questions to Collins for Q&A via email, my exchange with him and commentary will have to wait until next week. We will also have a conversation with Geoff Goodman, the CEO of Fresh Brothers, the next tenant to launch operations at Kitchen United Mix, starting this Friday.

Until then: Stay Hungry! 


POST SCRIPT: Fabulous local chef and neighborhood hero Chef Onil Chibas launched “Wonderful Wednesdays” this week.  Once a week — every Wednesday — a handcrafted multicourse dinner will be prepared and delivered directly to you for $35 per person. Insider intel: Local greens are provided by The Urban Homestead (The New Normal Part. 5, PW 4/23). chibasevents.com.