Ghost Kitchens are "A New And Fun Trend That's Here To Stay."

Ghost kitchens: Why this takeout trend is finding fans in Westchester, Rockland
Jeanne Muchnick, Rockland/Westchester Journal News
John Sharp, who co-owns three Peekskill restaurants — Birdsall House, Gleason's and The Factoria, had to reinvent his business to stay in business.  In December, he started a ghost kitchen at Gleason's. The concept, called Spano's Greek House (after Chef Sturges Spanos), features a completely different menu than what you'd find at Gleason's, including lamb souvlaki and falafel pita.  Greek food is also on the menu at Pita Greek, a new fast-casual ghost kitchen operating out of AquaTerra Grille in Pearl River. Open since Dec. 1, owner Nicholas Lambos said the menu was built specifically for takeout. That means customizable bowls and pitas, as well as other options like souvlaki and spanakopita. 
Welcome to the world of ghost kitchens, cooking facilities that produce food for delivery or takeout only. Also known as virtual restaurants or digital kitchens, ghost kitchens were a rising trend before COVID-19 only to be more in demand than ever.
That's because ordering food “into the cloud,” so to speak, limits consumer interactions (hello social distancing) and caters to the booming delivery demand. A demand that as Jody Pennette of CHIGO in Hawthorne said, has increased with the advent of home delivery services such as Uber Eats and DoorDash. 

"The industry has embraced the takeaway food market with gusto," Pennette said of his organic, locally sourced Chinese ghost kitchen.
Lo mein from Hawthorne-based CHIGO, a new takeout/delivery foodservice model featuring fresh, local, and organic Chinese cuisine.
A report by Euromonitor, a U.K.-based market research firm, predicts ghost kitchens will be a $1 trillion industry by 2030. In Rockland and Westchester, there are already a handful with more, no doubt, to come.
For some, like Lambos and Oscar Romano of Oscar's Restaurant in Blauvelt who now operates a Latin restaurant called Asador Don Pedro out of his eight-year-old Italian spot, there was the desire to open a different kind of restaurant but not enough capital for a brick and mortar location. The pandemic gave them the opportunity to try something new without breaking the bank, meaning they could use their existing restaurant kitchens to launch their new concepts. 
For others, like CHIGO's Pennette, the idea was in play well before the pandemic. Pennette, a longtime restaurateur who owned China White in Purchase and WUJI in Rye and Scarsdale, said the CHIGO concept started in 2018 only to come to fruition in June of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic.
New use for a restaurant kitchen
Another facet to the ghost kitchen concept is using an existing kitchen — as Carlos Santos of Aqui Es Santa Fe is doing — to launch a new brand. During the height of the pandemic in April, his Port Chester restaurant started selling frozen rainbow-colored Colombian empanadas under the name Nadas. Santos said the program, with its own website and Instagram, helped them stay afloat by expanding their market.
"It's added a new dimension to our delivery and takeout and is hopefully setting us up for a larger operation to mass produce our empanadas," he said. "It can't fully supplement for all the cost of operation, but it’s money we didn’t have."

Oscar Romano in the kitchen at Oscar's Restaurant and Asador Don Pedro Latin Grill in Blauvelt Dec. 7, 2020.
And then there are those such as Sharp and Louis Lanza of the Hudson Hospitality Group who started their ghost kitchens because of pandemic restrictions. Fusion Food Hall, Lanza's ghost kitchen project, started in December soon after Peekskill became a yellow zone with restrictions on dining. The kitchen operates from the combined facilities of the Hudson Room and Eagle Saloon and serves a fusion of foods from Lanza's various restaurants including Hudson Room, Taco Dive Bar, and Bajarito, with Fin & Brew and River Outpost pop-ups to come.
"It makes both economic sense as well as health sense," said Lanza. Not to mention, he added, that in colder months, delivery and take out have always been popular.
With Fusion Food Hall, diners will find everything from lo mein, sushi, and dumplings to tacos, burgers, Nashville hot fried chicken, and penne alla vodka, a concept Lanza said was driven by the changing preferences of customers, especially since the pandemic began.

"People want to order in delivery or take-out much more often; they want food that is safe and clean, and they also want value and variety," he said. "The menus reflect the kinds of things I want to be able to order. My kids may want a burger, or mac and cheese, while I want to have something lighter, a taco-bowl, or sushi. For the customer, it's one order, one website, and one pick-up point or one delivery driver — fast, hot, and convenient.”

Turning a trend into brick-and-mortar
Such choices are finding such a loyal clientele that Lanza — as well as Lambos — say there's a possibility their ghost kitchens may segue to a brick and mortar site once life returns to something more normal.  That's already, in fact, happened at Asador Don Pedro where, after months of success doing takeout and delivery, owner Oscar Romano took a portion of what had been a private dining room at Oscar's and turned it into a separate restaurant with its own entrance and decor. 
And while Pennette of CHIGO said that's not part of his concept, he did say his business had grown 455% since opening and that he continues to expand his base.
"By focusing just on the food and not the alchemy of a dining room that must attenuate music, lights, tabletop, service energy all into a seamless ballet on top of food quality, we decided that a ghost kitchen version of our Chinese passion project made perfect sense," he said. "Today seems to be a time for simple, honest execution based on quality. Finding that emotional conduit that tells the customer, 'I get you…we think alike' is the goal."
Ghost kitchens work, he added, because of a shift in our lifestyles that, at first, was reactionary but now is more accepted and even, expected.
Sharp, who started slow with his ghost kitchen, agrees. He is already expanding his concept and will soon add it to the Gleason's online ordering system (it's currently only on DoorDash). 
Lambos of Pita Greek also believes strongly in branching out. "I bet over the next couple of months there will be more ghost kitchen concepts that open up because they're an efficient way to start a new business," he said. 
"It’s a new and fun trend that's here to stay."
Jeanne Muchnick covers food and dining. Click here for her most recent articles and follow her latest dining adventures on Instagram @lohud_food or via the lohudfood newsletter