The Rise of the Virtual KitchenJun 08, 2022 12:57PM ● By Julius Fredrick
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
When lockdowns mandated by directed health measures first took effect in 2020, an unsettling pall fell over the lobbies, bistros, bars, and dining rooms of Omaha; beloved public spaces were sapped of complexion, eerily void of sound save for isolated murmurs of “so, what do we do now?”
Restaurateurs tend to be resourceful, tenacious, and well acquainted with pressure, but under such extreme circumstances—and with livelihoods at stake en masse—Darwinisms such as “adapt or die” found renewed, weighty purchase in the restaurant industry’s collective psyche.
Yet, from woolly mammoth sirloin served on stoneware circa 10,000 BCE—to candied rose petals painstakingly finessed to “bloom” under Michelin stars—the why of the food industry remains a constant: people love to eat, and to eat well.
It’s the how, and especially the where, that have fallen under public scrutiny in recent years.
Much like sustained calls for remote work, what was initially spurred by alarm and necessity cooled into a matter of convenience and quality-of-life: fast, easy, hyper-efficient meal delivery at the tap of a screen.
A growing percentage of diners find it’s a return to basic formula: distance divided by time. The strobing phone; the climbing speedometer; the ringing doorbell; the mouthwatering meal. “Keep the change.”
This explosive, arguably conditioned surge in demand has brought another industry trend from a tepid simmer to a rolling boil: Virtual kitchens—also known as commissary kitchens, cloud kitchens, and (somewhat divisively) ghost kitchens—forego most furnishings under stainless steel’s 11% chromium threshold. They thrive on delivery via online orders, and a single kitchen may dish up various “concepts,” with multiple brands occupying a single range whether in tandem or in shifts.
Jon Stastny is the owner of the Wonton Jon’s food truck since 2019—and at time of writing, a key player in hyperlocal Blend Virtual Food Hall. He has formed strong opinions on the topic.
“I really don’t want to be associated as a ‘ghost kitchen,’ because we are trying to do the opposite of that. We’re trying to conceptually do the same thing, but in a better way for [local] business,” Stastny said, referencing a menagerie of Omaha exclusives—Won Ton Jon’s, The Galley, The Deviled Egg Co., and more—all available at the collective located on 107th and Q streets.
Stastny associates the term ‘ghost kitchen’ with ‘white label,’ wherein big names lend little more than celebrity in exchange for huge cuts of profit.
“There’s all kinds of these nationwide virtual brands—you know, Wiz Khalifa is not cooking chicken, right, like, he just slapped his name on a chicken concept,” Stastny continued. “It’s a way to infuse business into these bigger chains, and then all the money goes out [of the community].”
Though, Stastny does consider Omaha exceptional in its deference to local enterprise.
“I’m fortunate to have started my business here, and to have grown up here,” Stastny affirmed, “because that’s the environment, you know, that Omaha fosters in terms of locality, and people going out of their way to make sure they support local first.”
Omaha’s insular support for local entrepreneurs may have played a part in restaurant co-owners Hannah and Omar Garrido’s choice to buck the virtual trend for a traditional, full-service establishment.
“We started out as The Churro Truck in 2016; we just opened El Churro Spot on Feb. 26, 2022,” Hannah said, flush with excitement over their new south 50th Street location.
“The business owns me,” Omar quipped. “It’s been a hard road, but we’re here.”
Inspired by a visit to Mexico where Omar noticed throngs of tourists encircling local churro vendors, the couple decided to take the concept and punch the gas—rearview not included. Of course, being in Omaha, the journey wasn’t without its share of potholes.
he truck life is harder than expected,” Hannah conceded. “You not only run into everyday business issues, but mechanical issues…the amount of times we were late to events or had to cancel because our truck was stuck on the road, I can’t tell you how many.”
Another was finding a decent commercial kitchen, ultimately settled by parking the truck in favor of four solid walls and a kitchen all their own.
“By law [food trucks] need to have a commercial kitchen,” Omar said. “There’s a lot of community kitchens, they’ll have like four or five trucks, and for me…I honestly never liked them; we’re very specific about how we want our stuff, so we were always looking for a kitchen that was completely empty, which was tough.”
Taking in the vibrant Churro Spot dining area, plus a glance past the swinging kitchen door, one can tell the couple’s need for privacy is well founded; the space is pristine, and the menu items—taco plates, burritos, horchata, and, of course, churros—are prepared with exacting detail regarding presentation and flavor profile.
Meanwhile, in Omaha’s Benson neighborhood, Chef Will Birge of Mealbox provides a unique case study. Professionally trained at the MCC Institute for Culinary Arts, Birge owned neither a restaurant nor a food truck of his own prior to starting his made-to-order meal delivery business in 2019—and technically, he still doesn’t. Birge leapt into the virtual kitchen mix pre-pandemic under duress, unknowingly fortuitous in his timing.
“There was a period in the summer of 2018 when I had an accident that basically immobilized my foot, a blade stuck in my foot,” Birge recalled with a grimace, “and just sitting around the house for months bored out of my mind, I just posted online to see if anyone was interested in having meals delivered to their home…10 clients grew to 20, then it grew to 50, and that’s when I realized that this could be something.”
With Mealbox’s rapidly scaling clientele, Birge needed more space, and pronto. He would find it in a demure, tucked away spot on 65th and Maple streets.
“I believe this used to be a butcher shop, something along those lines, years ago,” Birge said, the kitchen now sporting a medley of fresh ingredients, made-from-scratch sauces, and a large blackboard reading: ‘Cooking is a manifestation of the human soul.’
While Birge still lists a phone number on the Mealbox website, in true virtual kitchen fashion, the layout is designed for online shopping with orders available gallery-style from the site’s ‘menu’ tab—though a physical retail hub is under consideration.
Avoiding the pitfalls of national delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats, Birge supports his own fleet of delivery drivers and a small kitchen crew that he personally oversees. His greatest benefactor, however, is closer to home.
“I’ll tell you what, I’m lucky to have a wife that does,” Birge said when asked about balancing the business side of Mealbox with the demands of high-volume cookery. “If I had to do all that, I couldn’t do what I do. She lets me focus on the food and making that perfect.”
“It’s interesting, but all the cards got laid out correctly,” he said. “Yeah, I’m just blessed, just lucky.”
Chef Birge’s professional training and decades of culinary experience undoubtedly factor into the success of Mealbox, but unseasoned entrepreneurs aren’t without resources of their own.
Nonprofits like North Omaha’s No More Empty Pots, and their cross-river counterpart in Kitchen Council, offer specialized “incubator” programs to supply, educate, and promote prospective startups in their formative stages.
No More Empy Pots' co-founder and CEO Nancy Williams emphasizes the nurturing of community food systems as the onus of their operation, with entrepreneurship an all-too-important facet.
“When someone shows up here, they should be able to see the different sectors of the food system in action, from production to processing, consumption, distribution, and recycling,” Williams said. “Our framework is more about helping to develop a more resilient food system where everybody gets what they need out of it.”
“And one of our goals is to help our entrepreneurs connect to local food systems,” added Entrepreneur Team Manager Eric Purcell, “coordinating with farmers markets…looking for consistent buyers…”
Located in Council Bluffs’ Pottawattamie Arts, Culture & Entertainment Center (PACE), The Kitchen Council focuses exclusively on the commercial development of its members.
“We really see the program as a launching pad, and a testing ground, so to speak,” said its managing director, Holly Benson. “We’ve had a couple ghost operations out of this space, and we welcome the concept with the understanding that there’s a growth plan, a growth trajectory in mind.”
Both organizations offer ample commissary footage, top-end equipment, and on-site pop-up venues for members to field-test their wares. The main difference comes down to payment, with No More Empty Pots offering kitchen rental by the hour and Kitchen Council billing a flat monthly fee.
While local movement in the virtual kitchen space is fairly transparent, it’s often national chains that fulfill the spectral imagery terms like “ghost kitchen” evoke.
Philadelphia-based consumer goods and delivery company Gopuff is no exception, but kitchen lead Dylan Koslaphirom said area businesses needn’t worry about the company chewing through culinary real estate.
“It’s a trailer, just a kitchen on wheels, usually sitting outside the warehouse,” Koslaphirom said, speaking on Gopuff’s initiative to offer hot meals in addition to their vast product stockpiles.
When pressed to divine the fate of virtual kitchens:
“The community aspect, that’s definitely here in Omaha. I don’t see that going away here. But in high-convenience places like New York or San Francisco? It’s the future,” Koslaphirom forecasted.
“After all, time is a thing people simply can’t get back.”
For more information, search @thechurrotruckomaha on Facebook, or visit blendfoodhall.com, mealboxomaha.com, nmepomaha.org, kitchencouncil.org, or paceartsiowa.org.