Why am I devoting two weeks to examine and interrogate Kitchen United Mix, a successful ghost kitchen delivery chain that was already positioned to commercially disrupt the landscape for independent restaurants locally, well before the lockdown changed everything?
First, let’s quickly recap. Kitchen United Mix opened in Pasadena two years ago as a model that provides multiple modular kitchen spaces for a number of restaurants and restaurant concepts to prepare fresh menu items for local pick-up and delivery exclusively. The model offers start-up and expansion opportunity at a fraction of the usual capital cost and Kitchen United provides their tenants amenities like permitting assistance, marketing support, as well as trash, cleaning and pest control. Now with outlets in Chicago and Scottsdale, Arizona, Kitchen United is set to open in Austin, Texas with financing in place to expand to the East Coast.
There’s a bit more to the story though. The CEO of Kitchen United is Jim Collins. Collins is a resident of nearby Montrose, where he independently owns and operates Town Kitchen & Grill, which opened in January 2015. I thought he might have a unique perspective on the current plight of independent restaurants in the area. Asked to submit written questions, my Q&A with Collins landed late of my deadline last week.
Following is an abridged set of questions posed to Collins via email.
Pasadena Weekly: As a local restaurateur, how is business for Town Kitchen & Grill as opposed to business at Kitchen United Mix currently?
Jim Collins: Like a lot of restaurants Town has shifted completely to off-premise orders. But Town isn’t designed to just do off premise. It has a large and comfortable dining room and bar and we’ve had to completely reconfigure it to try to make it work under the current paradigm.
The restaurants at Kitchen United have experienced a lot of new people ordering from new and different neighborhoods. With our business model being centered on providing delivery, take-out and catering, we were positioned well to support off-premise business before today’s circumstances.
Interestingly, the fact that people are working from home means we are serving less daytime business traffic than we normally do, but that’s offset by seeing a lot more dinners going out. When people go back to work, we’ll be really busy!
How sustainable is the individual take-out model for Town?
For any restaurant designed for dine in business, the current mode of operation is largely unsustainable. Restaurants are tricky businesses and there is an important balance of revenue, labor, food cost, and rent. There’s simply too many square feet in a dine-in restaurant to function in a financially healthy way when we’re only allowed to do take-out.
Should the city take a more active role in promoting and restoring local restaurant culture?
I think any entrepreneur would say yes to the extent that a city can actually help.
Restaurants have always been tricky businesses. This is why so many fail. It’s easy to blame the city, or COVID-19 or whatever, and these are certainly factors. In Pasadena, parking is a huge problem and it complicates access to businesses. With that said, the majority of restaurants die because they fail to make a viable, differentiated connection to their consumers, and for those that do and make it through the first few years there is a tendency to get comfortable. Consumer demand changes. This current situation will further change what consumers seek. Like any other business we have to adapt.
You have a unique position and perspective as an owner of a local independent restaurant and the CEO of a company that is actively disrupting that culture. What are the prospects and viable paths forward for independent restaurants as the economy reopens?
First and foremost, our mission at Kitchen United has always been to support the growth and success of restaurant operators. Even before COVID-19, explosive growth in off premise was creating a substantial new opportunity for restaurateurs to capitalize on a new revenue stream, but contrary to popular belief it wasn’t cannibalizing dining room visits. (Before COVID-19 dining room visits were expected to grow substantially in 2020).
Given everything that has occurred since the pandemic started, we see even more opportunity for growth now, and that will likely translate to restaurants on the whole. While we believe people will always want to gather and enjoy a meal out at their favorite restaurant, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way restaurants view the importance of their online channels and certainly opened up even more opportunity for off-premise business.
Looking ahead, restaurants will have to make appropriate adjustments to their routine to provide a sense of security for consumers and employees alike — including limiting dine-in seating, “tap and pay” technology to limit handling of credit cards, masks, gloves and single-use menus. Despite the challenging times that lie ahead, our goal remains the same — to help restaurant operators grow their reach and tap into the opportunity for off-premise business.
There’s one thing no one argues: it’s going to be interesting!
Collins is as interested and directly invested in a sustainable restaurant culture as anyone in town and he has a team that thoroughly understands the exigencies of the market. Kitchen United Mix is one more important stakeholder in the local dining landscape that could serve as as a potential guidepost, resource and model for independent restaurants locally.
In the meantime, I’m famished! What’s for lunch? –