PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
Ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants bring Monterey County a taste of the future
Dehydrated pizzas reconstituted at the push of a button. A cup of Earl Grey tea materializing out of thin air. Nutritious green wafers of questionable origin. Science fiction offers tantalizing teases for the future of food.
Our modern food system may not offer these just yet, but some culinary innovations have turned fiction into fact. Biotechnology has given us a growing menu of alternative “meats.” Robots can grill our burgers to order. Social media instantly connects us with chefs and cuisines halfway around the world.
And the restaurant itself has evolved in fits and spurts since its emergence in the late 18th century. The traditional model of being greeted by a host, ordering your selections with waitstaff, enjoying course after course seated at your table and receiving the bill as the meal’s final flourish has been giving way to fast food, counter service, street vendors, food trucks, pop-ups and more.
Restaurants are again poised for an upgrade as they enter a new digitally driven era—increasingly, they’re abandoning brick and mortar altogether and going virtual.
BITE BY BYTE
Virtual restaurants offer diners a menu of options, but only for pickup and delivery. Instead of sitting at a table and ordering from a server, you scroll, click or tap a webpage or app to make your selections. After a short wait, your food is available for curbside pickup or a courier brings it directly to your door.
If this concept seems familiar, the pandemic saw most restaurants pivot to this model out of necessity when regulators ordered dining rooms shuttered. But even prepandemic, virtual restaurants were growing in popularity in response to the costly overhead of opening and operating a physical establishment. The rise of virtual eateries was the logical evolution of the pop-up restaurant model—many virtual restaurants operate inside other restaurants or commercial food facilities, just like a pop-up.
Popular fried chicken delivery service Kickin Chicken in Santa Cruz was an early pioneer of virtual operations on the Central Coast. But the past year has seen several new virtual food businesses debut. Some are entirely new concepts, like By the Bay BBQ operating out of the kitchen at Seaside Seafood Market. Others repackage their signature dishes under a second brand—Archie’s Eatery runs La Dolce Vita, International Cuisine has Pizza Pasta Mama Mia and The Halal Lovers, and SUR operates Barnyard Chicken & Waffles. These virtual concepts have straightforward names and menus that are designed around search engine optimization to help hungry diners quickly connect to spots that will satisfy specific cravings.
Aquino’s Birrieria has emerged as one of the Monterey Peninsula’s most popular virtual restaurants.
Owner Gustavo Aquino and his family launched the business last March. “We lost our jobs due to the pandemic,” he explains. “My whole family worked in restaurants. We were bored at home staying inside with everything shut down. We don’t like to be bored at home.” He leveraged his sizable social media following and background in social media marketing, alongside his father Macario’s 20- plus years of experience in restaurant kitchens and his mother Paulina Bernadino’s baking skills, to launch a home-based pop-up.
As with most virtual eateries, the menu is narrowly focused. Aquino’s Birrieria specializes in Mexican birria, the popular slowcooked stew. While traditionally made with goat, Aquino uses his mother’s recipe for beef birria, cooked for four to five hours in a rich chile pepper broth called consomé.
Birria has become an Instagram sensation with countless photos and videos showing cheesy quesabirria tacos dunked into crimson consomé. Aquino chose Instagram (@aquinosbirrieriallc) as the platform for his burgeoning birria business, taking orders by direct message on the platform. “A lot of the bigger players like to use apps, but their fees are pretty high,” he explains. “Instagram is free and one of the best ways to go viral.” Aquino handles pickup and delivery directly without a pricey third-party intermediary. He also takes orders by text message for those without an Instagram account.
As demand outpaced the capacity of their home kitchen—and recognizing microenterprise home kitchens aren’t technically allowed in Monterey County yet—Aquino set out to secure a commercial kitchen for production. In January, he transitioned Aquino’s Birrieria operations to the CA Catering Services (formerly Aqua Terra Culinary) kitchen in Pacific Grove. “They were doing catering for big events, but those events were shut down because of the pandemic, so they were looking for people to rent out the space,” explains Aquino. “We’re a ghost kitchen. People see the building, but don’t expect anything to come from there.”
As a business owner, Aquino finds this virtual model appealing, citing the low overhead costs and flexibility (the birrieria is only open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday). But he misses seeing reactions to the food firsthand. “When I go to a restaurant, I like to go to a specific place because I like the service there, the people there,” he explains. “That’s the one thing that’s missing here. You don’t have that traditional interaction.” While he can’t be there when a diner unboxes their meal, Aquino does make a point of introducing himself to patrons when they pick up their food. Engaging with his regulars on Instagram has been critical in building relationships. “They say ‘location, location, location’ for restaurants, but with ghost kitchens like ours, we have the following, and a lot of people buying from us live in Seaside, but they come to PG. That surprised me.”
Thanks to the birrieria’s success, Aquino and his family will soon open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Pacific Grove. “We always wanted to have our own restaurant. The ghost kitchen gave us a shot at trying out what people might like and testing menu items before putting in a lot of time, money and labor to open up a restaurant.”
FOR ALL APP-ETITES
Virtual restaurants operate symbiotically with ghost kitchens—facilities licensed and inspected by local authorities for commercial food prep. Some ghost kitchens are standalone operations, some are shared spaces, some are portable mobile units, but they’re all strategically situated for convenience of pickup and delivery. From the outside, a ghost kitchen is often nondescript—no flashy signage is needed to entice passersby—but inside, a culinary crew churns away as tablets chime with online orders.
The tech sector is betting big on ghost kitchens. Several startups have raised serious capital to deploy ghost kitchens in major cities. Companies like CloudKitchens and REEF kitchens rent out food prep facilities. Kitch is an online “matchmaker” service that helps virtual restaurateurs secure available kitchens. Point-of-sale company Ordermark licenses prefabricated menus for restaurants with its Nextbite platform of virtual menus.
Established national brands have dipped their toes into virtual operations. Many have launched new brands that leverage existing kitchen ingredients and staff to sell a separate menu. Denny’s operates a virtual burger business, The Burger Den. Chili’s offers its signature chicken wings for pickup and delivery under the label It’s Just Wings. Chuck E. Cheese seeks a more grown-up clientele with its virtual Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings brand. These virtual brands generate additional revenue without extensive investment in new infrastructure to open another franchise.
As such, some have framed these app-driven kitchens as nefarious antagonists. Will the wave of digital franchises drown out small, independent local operations? Not if René Diaz has anything to say about it.
The Diaz family has deep roots in local hospitality. In 1963, Jennie and Dean Sr. opened Plaza Linda. For more than 40 years and three generations, the Diazes operated the popular Mexican restaurant in Carmel Valley. While the Plaza Linda property and brand changed hands in 2007, the family has kept tabs on the local dining scene—René’s brother Robert has a contract for food service at the Presidio of Monterey and has operated World Café DLI at the base for more than 10 years. Meantime, René has seen nationwide chains ride trending tastes to outcompete mom-and-pop businesses, “The big guys get in and push out small businesses and families. That transition? We’ve been there.”
In January, the Diaz family resurrected its beloved “PL” recipes for the digital generation as Plaza Diaz. For four months, the virtual restaurant operated out of the same catering kitchen as Aquino’s Birrieria. It afforded the Diaz family the chance to reconnect with regulars from the original Plaza Linda and explore a more full-blown return to business. “We love it,” says René. “We’re reconnecting with so many people who ate at the restaurant.”
Like Aquino, Diaz found the flexibility appealing—“As a family we could operate it together and control our hours”—but he also appreciated the streamlined finances that could pass savings along to diners. “We don’t have the overhead of a standard restaurant or even a quick-service concept,” he says. “It’s just the kitchen. No plates to wash, no glassware to manage—it’s just to-go containers.”
In May, Plaza Diaz moved to a new location— Monterey’s Red Lion Hotel on Munras Avenue near Highway 1.
“In the delivery and pickup world, you have to be centrally located,” he explains. “The Red Lion Hotel represents the center of the peninsula. From there, I can hit every single house delivery-wise. I couldn’t do that in PG.”
Here, Diaz can take advantage of a spacious kitchen that’s shared with the hotel’s two dining properties—the forthcoming Crazy Horse Mexican Grill and eventually the replacement for its Safari Club bar and lounge—to increase capacity, menu and reach for Plaza Diaz. But, critically, the larger kitchen has also allowed Diaz to expand into new virtual operations.
René, Robert and family operate Mid Coast Supply Inc., which licenses recipes from chefs and restaurants for virtual operations. “Pick your favorite items and I can do it out of this kitchen,” says Diaz. “It’s your menu, your recipes, your items—but we’re the manufacturers.”
Diaz’s first clients are homegrown Caesars Etc. and national franchise MrBeast Burger. Diaz worked with longtime friend chef Mike Dunn to make favorites from Dunn’s Caesars Etc. catering company accessible outside of special events. Calamari fries and wraps are selections now available for pickup and delivery.
MrBeast Burger is a chain of virtual eateries from YouTube celebrity MrBeast (Jimmy Donaldson) and Virtual Dining Concepts— the same company behind virtual concepts from other celebrities, like Tyga Bites, Mariah’s Cookies and Mario’s Tortas Lopez. Restaurants and ghost kitchens license the celebrity-endorsed recipes that can be made from ingredients they already stock, providing a new revenue stream that runs in tandem with their primary operation. For Diaz, MrBeast Burger is a strategic partnership that helps support his family’s passion project, Plaza Diaz.
Diaz’s portfolio is growing. He’s brought onboard Brad Kreitler—previously executive chef at Rocky Point—to assist with kitchen operations and shepherd a new virtual brand focused on seafood.
Some prognosticators have warned of a post-pandemic dining landscape with only apps and franchises remaining. Critics find virtual restaurants and ghost kitchens ominous and impersonal, but Diaz is quick to humanize the nascent industry and show the face of the electronic entrepreneur behind the screen. And both Aquino and Diaz have made it clear that small, independent operators can still compete against the tech titans in this new digital future that keeps local hospitality alive and well.
A virtual restaurant is a restaurant with a menu strictly available for pickup and/or delivery. These establishments don’t offer dine-in service and lack a dining room entirely. A virtual restaurant may operate from a traditional restaurant kitchen or from a ghost kitchen (see below).
Both traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants and virtual restaurants may license a virtual menu or a virtual franchise—a selection of dishes or even an entire concept for production in a ghost kitchen (see below). This is a cost-effective way of expanding a brand beyond a single location.
A ghost kitchen is a food preparation facility that rents kitchen space to chefs and restaurateurs. A ghost kitchen may host a virtual restaurant— sometimes even several virtual concepts at once—with food for curbside pickup and/or delivery. Ghost kitchens must meet the same inspection requirements of a traditional restaurant.
A commissary kitchen is a shared commercial kitchen workspace. Like a ghost kitchen, it may offer food preparation equipment for rent to chefs and specialized food artisans. Regular, direct-to-consumer pickup and delivery typically distinguishes a ghost kitchen from a commissary kitchen, however, the two terms are often used interchangeably. Commercial commissary kitchens must meet the same inspection requirements of a traditional restaurant.
A microenterprise home kitchen operation (MEHKO) is a home-based food business offering homemade food for sale directly to customers. These operations are permitted under California’s Homemade Food Act (AB 626). However, this law requires individual counties to pass local ordinances permitting MEHKOs. To date, Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties have not passed ordinances to allow MEHKOs, however, many home-based pop-ups do operate throughout the Central Coast and post ash sales on Instagram and other social media platforms.