In a converted warehouse on the industrial side of East Vancouver, the screen of a tablet mounted on a white-tiled kitchen counter flashes green.
“It’s our first chicken combo,” Evan Elman, the co-owner of Urban Tadka, shouts to his partner, Tushar Tondvalkar, who races over to the walk-in fridge to grab a kebab.
And just like that, with the flick of a mobile food-delivery app from a faceless customer known only as Nate, ordering dinner from who knows where, this brand-new ghost restaurant sprang to life last Saturday night.
Ghost restaurants, also known as virtual, dark and cloud kitchens, are the new great disruptors. They operate in the shadows of an alternate hospitality universe with no storefronts or dining rooms. They exist purely to serve delivery orders through third-party companies such as UberEats, Foodora and DoorDash for the convenience of hungry couch potatoes.
Ghost restaurants are not literally disembodied, but they do come in various shapes and guises. Some operate out of the back door of existing restaurants. Last April, the Joseph Richard Group made headlines by launching 100 ghost restaurants in one day. It wasn’t actually 100 restaurants – it was seven niche food concepts (Obey Poke, STAK’D Sandwich Co., Frsh Frys, Sweet Tooth Desserts etc.) all operating in the repurposed kitchen space of 14 bricks-and-mortar Fraser Valley restaurants that offer entirely different menus to its walk-in customers.
Others, such as Urban Tadka, work from shared commissary kitchens with flexible workspaces. This is a first “restaurant” for Mr. Elman and Mr. Tondvalkar, both experienced fine-dining chefs who also operate their own catering companies (Vancouver Private Dining and The Indian Pantry) from the same 20-foot-by-5-foot production space at Coho Commissary at 1370 E. Georgia St.
Although the space sounds small, their $3,000 monthly rent gives them access to two state-of-the-art kitchen lines (each equipped with a Rational combi oven, two 40-pound deep fryers and tilt skillet), a dishwasher, nightly cleaning services, cold and dry storage, meeting rooms and a pop-up restaurant facility in the new Coho Café, which will also feature food products from commissary members on its menu and retail shelves.
We should know where our food comes from, even – perhaps especially – if it’s only available through delivery. And for anyone who has ever heard scary stories about slum landlords and the medieval-dungeon-like conditions of some commissary kitchens, this sparkling clean facility with angel investors and community-minded ideals might provide peace of mind.
For some young cooks, this whole ghost restaurant concept also offers hope for a brighter future.
Mr. Elman has no interest in opening his own traditional restaurant. "The risk-reward ratio is just not there for me, especially in Vancouver where it costs at least $5,000 to rent a small take-out place. I don’t care about the glory. I’d rather have financial freedom.”
Like the wild west, the ghost restaurant landscape is changing fast. As it grows and evolves, the opportunities for startups might not be so great. In Toronto, for instance, a game-changing virtual food hall called Kitchen Hub launched earlier this month, bringing brand-name gourmet fare from downtown restaurants to the suburbs. The concept is similar to the California-based Kitchen United, a huge service provider that offers turnkey kitchen space to restaurants that want to branch out into off-site dining. The catch? The company only works with restaurants that have proven track records and multiple locations.
So does that mean only chain restaurants will survive in the virtual food-hall realm? We shall see.
Will prices go up or down? Right now, they’re all over the map, with some established restaurants taking a loss and others charging huge premiums to cover the 25-per-cent to 30-per-cent service charge levied by the delivery companies.
Will ghost restaurants kill traditional restaurants? Probably no more than online streaming destroyed movie theatres. In the future, dining out will become more of an event and restaurants will have to get more creative in order to lure customers out of their homes.
Will food quality and menu offerings change? Yes. Most restaurant meals aren’t meant to travel. Already, the large food manufacturers are reinventing their products to accommodate delivery.
Look at frozen French fries, for instance. They’re all coated in starch washes these days. The trend might be marketed as offering a “crispier crunch,” but the food science was devised as a method of sealing in the potato’s water content so the fries don’t wilt as much during the 30 minutes it takes to get from the fryer to your doorstep. Still, if those potatoes are closed in a cardboard box and then transported by bike courier in an insulated bag, they’re going to steam and get soggy regardless. Why bother ordering them in the first place?
These are the questions we have to start asking and the issues we have to discuss – or at least I do. Ghost restaurants aren’t going away. The trend is only going to grow. Traditional restaurants can’t ignore them – nor can restaurant critics. From now on, I’ll be adding ghost restaurants and food delivery to my mix of reviews. How could I not? It would like a television critic ignoring Netflix.
- Kitchen location: Coho Commissary, 1370 E. Georgia St., Vancouver
- Delivery: Uber Eats, DoorDash, Foodora
- Prices: Appetizers, $15; mains, $15 to $19; combos, $20 to $25
Chef Tushar Tondvalkar specializes in aromatic Awadhi cuisine from Central India, offering comfort-food versions of the refined tasting menus he used to cook at Mumbai Local. Slow-simmered, deeply spiced curries and juicy charcoal-grilled kebabs travel well over long distances. (Expect to wait more than an hour if ordering from Vancouver’s west side.) Lots of vegetarian (paneer-based) dishes and a few vegan entrees. The combos (kebab, curry, small cabbage salad, rice and naan) offer good value, but not the most interesting choices. Best bets: chicken hariyali kebabs marinated (and then rerolled after cooking) in mint, cilantro and chili chutney; murgh musallam with its chubby, falling-off-the-bone chicken legs smothered in caramelized onion and almond paste; and nalli nihari, an incredibly voluptuous, marrow-rich goat-shank curry brightened with Kashmir chili. Think Indian osso buco.
Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.