The word “pivot” has become synonymous with business plans and models in the era of COVID-19, as entrepreneurs work for ways to increase their revenue in uncertain economic times. The hospitality industry, one of the hardest hit during the pandemic, is no exception.
But in a time where many would subscribe to belt tightening, local restaurateurs are instead launching new concepts. You won’t see these restaurants on monument signs or plastered on building facades. These ghost kitchens are borne out of the imagination and ingenuity of local chefs and restaurant owners, who produce their new menu items in the same grills and ovens of their brick-and-mortar restaurants, offering new cuisine in a largely delivery-only format to cash in on the growing online ordering phenomenon.
Nationwide, more than 110,000 eating and drinking establishments closed temporarily or permanently in 2020, including many in Loudoun County, according to the National Restaurant Association. While profits shrank dramatically, particularly in the early spring of 2020 when indoor dining was prohibited, one sector of the restaurant business reported massive increases—online ordering. With many people isolated by choice or necessity, online delivery orders, either through third-party services or directly from restaurants, accounted for $45 billion nationwide in 2020. That’s up from $30 billion in online sales in 2017 and ahead of the $41 billion pre-COVID prediction for 2020 from Alphawise.
A year since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived stateside, ghost kitchens are cropping up in all corners of Loudoun County. Hospitality leaders are optimistic that their creativity and new culinary offerings will make 2021 a successful business year, and offer them exposure to more hungry customers.
Ghost Kitchen LoCo
(Ghost kitchen of Kovi Kitchen)
Dean Boeving and Wes Guptill saw their restaurant profits drop 80% from one weekend to the next when COVID arrived last spring. So, they took to the streets. For sometimes six days a week through the summer, they would load up the Kovi Kitchen food truck and schedule visits to local neighborhoods, offering pre-orders of Kovi cuisine, as well as walk-up orders. It was a business decision that was key to the business’ survival, Boeving acknowledged, but as the summer months marched on their exhaustion made them realize it may not be a sustainable business model.
Once businesses began to reopen, food truck sales started to decline, so the duo knew it was time to think outside the box a little bit more. Pre-COVID, they had been looking to franchise Kovi, but put those plans on ice with the shift in the economy. But it was the franchising company they were working with that first gave them the idea for creating a ghost kitchen.
Boeving looked to his existing staff, which included a chef with an Italian background and Latinx cooks, and realized he already had what he needed to launch several different culinary concepts. They relied on 30 locals in their foodies group to taste test different menu offerings, and, just as importantly, asked them what they would like to see offered. Ghost Kitchen LoCo was born. The idea of offering so many different menus, from Kovi’s Asian street food offerings, to Italian, to wings, to empanadas, to gastropub fare including 32-ounce tomahawk steaks, to bubble teas, shakes, sweets and even a keto menu, was to have something for everyone, Boeving said.
As an example, he points to a family deciding what to order for dinner. One kid wants pizza, someone wants a burger, mom or dad wants steak. With Ghost Kitchen LoCo, customers can order from several different menus, all in one transaction.
While Ghost Kitchen LoCo will use third-party delivery services, Boeving said he wants to “create revolution” by employing their own set of drivers to ensure the customer service the restaurant is known for carries over to its food order deliveries.
He said it would be a “good problem to have,” to have to hire more employees to meet that need, but they will see how sales numbers come in for the ghost kitchen first. They are also looking to add a subscription service, which would waive delivery fees for subscribers, include an invite to a quarterly fan club party, and other perks.
Ghost Kitchen LoCo is expected to launch soon. Follow the company’s website and Facebook page, facebook.com/ghostkitchenloco, to stay up to date.
DC Wings/James Dairy Bar
(Ghost kitchens of Delirium Cafe and Wild Wood Pizza)
Launching new restaurant concepts is like breathing for serial restaurateur Curtis Allred. So launching multiple ghost kitchen concepts simultaneously is perhaps not as daunting for him as it would be for others. It’s about feeding that creative desire to make something, he said.
“It definitely allows you to do that without the amount of risk as far as cash to invest into brick-and-mortar facility improvements and those kinds of things,” he said.
But Allred acknowledged it also comes with its own set of challenges. While he has the space and staffing to accommodate the new concepts, “it requires a significant amount of versatility,” he said. That means training staff to produce multiple concepts of food and different menus all in the same kitchen in a restaurant that also is offering table service for customers.
Allred recently launched DC Wings out of his downtown Leesburg Delirium Cafe USA. He said the restaurant’s wing offerings had grown in popularity. He learned his recipe from former Kovi proprietor Vi Nguyen, and uses potato starch in the breading instead of flour to produce crispier, less oily wings. The wings come with sauces or rubbed in dry spices, and DC Wings also offers a keto wing with no breading or sauce for the lower carb crowd. Burgers, fries and brews, including more domestic brands, round out the menu.
James Dairy Bar also is set for its debut. Run out of Wild Wood Pizza, the offering is named after Allred’s great uncle, a 104-year-old World War II veteran who opened up his own dairy bar in Raleigh, NC, shortly after returning from war. The ice cream and gelato are made in house, using all-natural ingredients. The kitchen has the ability to produce 70 gallons of ice cream a day, and Allred said he sees the potential for a brick-and-mortar operation for James down the road.
Allred also plans for the launch of two more ghost kitchen concepts—the Affordable Pizza Concept, or APC, which offers simple, inexpensive, classic pizzas all for under $10, and a return of his Balls of Glory meatball menu, which formerly had a brick-and-mortar presence on Loudoun Street in Leesburg. APC is expected to also launch this month, and Allred said he expects Balls of Glory to return in April. All ghost kitchen concepts will offer beer, wine and cocktail deliveries as well.
“There’s no shortage of ideas,” Allred said. “We’ll see where the market goes with it.”
(Ghost kitchen of O’Malley’s Pub)
Matt Stiers, area director of food and beverage for the Holiday Inn Dulles, said a common request from guests on the hotel’s catering menu was Chef Stephon Washington’s Jamaican dishes. His red beans and rice, jerk chicken, and other staple dishes had caught a following, and Stiers and Washington had an idea.
“Really for me it was a chance to really do something that kind of represented me in a sense. It was pretty much a shot for me to have my own influence, to have my own piece of me to give to the world,” Washington said.
Grandpa Hank’s, named for Washington’s Jamaican great-grandfather, was recently launched out of the O’Malley’s Pub kitchen at the Holiday Inn Dulles, where Washington serves as executive chef. His great-grandfather always told him to cook from the heart, and that’s exactly what Washington has been doing with his new concept.
“I’m having a ball,” he said.
His great-grandfather referred to creating Jamaican cuisine as “loving cooking” that you have to watch over and babysit. He uses all natural ingredients, from star anise, cinnamon and citrus fruits to add to the flavor.
While the duo thought the jerk chicken would be Grandpa Hank’s best seller, other Caribbean favorites like oxtail and curried goat have been quite popular, Washington said.
Stiers credits parent company B.F. Saul for being a forward-thinking group, amenable to running a ghost kitchen concept out of their already busy O’Malley’s kitchen. He said if Grandpa Hank’s continues its success, it’s a concept that may be replicated in other hotels, or even a brick-and-mortar establishment.
“There are possibilities if this goes even better than right now, we have a potential of even doing other ghost kitchens with other hotels in our portfolio. If we get a brick-and-mortar restaurant at one point that would be amazing. If we’re still showing the revenue numbers we are now there’s the potential to drive this to our Tysons Corner and Crystal City markets,” he said.
Paulie’s Italian Kitchen
(Ghost kitchen of The Wine Kitchen)
Jason Miller, owner of The Wine Kitchen, with locations in Leesburg and Frederick, MD, saw the news coverage of national chains opening up their kitchens to other restaurants to let them produce their own menus, so he got to thinking.
“We tried to figure out another way we could cross-utilize the other stuff we were doing in our restaurants to create a new restaurant without creating a whole new restaurant,” he said. “I would make the analogy, if you have one line in the water you might only catch one fish at a time, but a ghost concept allows us to have two lines in the water. It’s the same restaurant, equipment, and people, but a different face and dishes.”
Miller launched Paulie’s Italian Kitchen in November, and said early returns are it’s a success.
“We wanted it to help us through the winter. We knew we only had seven tables in the restaurant. We needed to have more capacity and the only way to do that was outside of the four walls,” he said.
The Wine Kitchen was already producing its own pastas, so adding in sauces and custom-made Italian dishes was not such a leap. While The Wine Kitchen’s menu changes with the seasons, Paulie’s offers the Italian comfort food—spaghetti and meatballs, shrimp fra diavolo, three cheese ravioli and lasagna— throughout the year The menu is rounded out with a selection of salads, desserts and, of course, wines.
Paulie’s fare can be ordered on its website and delivered via Doordash.
Miller said he believes ghost kitchens are here to stay.
“Restaurants just have to find novel ways to create revenue. That is going to be the key to our existence and success moving forward,” he said.
(Ghost kitchen of Uncle Julio’s)
Kevin Tallungan has been with Uncle Julio’s for 27 of its 35 years, and, unsurprisingly, past year was like no other. The director of operations for the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, Tallungan drearily reports one of the hardest days of his hospitality life when he had to lay off dozens of employees across the franchise’s 10 restaurants when COVID’s economic impacts hit last spring.
A proven hospitality concept, “we’ve never really had to reinvent ourselves,” but 2020 changed that.
Now, Tallungan is ebullient about Uncle Julio’s new ghost kitchen concept, Savage Burrito.
“We had never done burritos, never offered them, but a lot of people would ask,” he said. “The positioning of our brand, being an upscale brand, burritos didn’t necessarily fit who we were trying to be. Little did we know that was just a big old softball sitting there for us. The burrito business is enormous.”
As company executives began brainstorming what concept they could launch as the ghost kitchen phenomenon took hold last year, they soon realized that Uncle Julio’s staff had the capability and know-how to make completely unique and high-quality burritos, available via delivery only.
While every item on the Savage Burrito menu can be modified, and create your own is always a popular choice, Tallungan lists off some of the popular items. There’s a Nashville hot chicken burrito, a spicy steakhouse burrito, and a burrito known as the OG, which boasts an “old school flava.” Tortillas are infused with a signature flavor portfolio, utilizing ingredients like jalapenos and chilula. Also offered are burrito bowls or salads, side items like chips and queso, desserts and the ideal beverages to wash down a burrito—margarita pops, beer, and soft drinks.
While Savage Burrito has only been around seven weeks, the responses so far have been tremendous, Tallungan said.
Walker’s Waffle House
(Ghost kitchen of ResQ BBQ)
Chuck Meyer was fully prepared to launch a ghost kitchen last year when business dried up at Evergreen Sportsplex, where his ResQ BBQ is the official concessionaire. With his Italian background, he looked to launch an Italian concept, but decided to go in another direction with the launch of Paulie’s Italian Kitchen and his friendships with local pizza purveyors. He and his wife welcomed a grandson, Walker, and an idea was born.
Walker’s Waffle House, “really doesn’t change our menu a lot,” he said. “It’s just a different vessel to serve the food on.”
Now, customers can enjoy a waffle sandwich featuring all of the meats that ResQ BBQ already had developed a fanbase for—smoked turkey and ham, pulled pork, and more. Walker’s also offers its own unique menu items, from a barbecue version of the Cuban sandwich to chicken and waffle sandwiches with options for spicy, buffalo bleu and maple bourbon. Breakfast sandwiches that include sausage, a pork roll, and bacon are also included.
“We probably could’ve put about 20 different sandwiches on there. The menu is a little bigger than we wanted to start with but it’s working out well,” he said.
The waffles are all gluten free, homemade with their own flour and flavor, Meyer said, and will definitely fill up many a hungry belly.
“We call them mighty sandwiches. Each sandwich comes with two 4”x6” waffles.
That’s a pretty big waffle. It’s definitely a full meal,” he said.
Customers can walk up to ResQ BBQ’s Evergreen Sportsplex space to order from Walker’s menu, or order on a third-party delivery site, or even Walker’s own site.