2021 | Dine

‘Ghost kitchen,’ ‘pop-up’ food service increase during pandemic

Restaurateurs say pivot helps keep their business going

Chef Tony's recently launched a pickup and delivery business called Hemi Pizza out of its downtown Bethesda restaurant. Hemi Pizza serves Detroit-style pies, which are distinguished by their use of Focaccia bread and buttery crust.

Photo courtesy of Tony Marciante

“Pop-up” food concepts — in which restaurants cook meals in a brick-and-mortar kitchen for pickup and delivery — and delivery-only “ghost kitchens” have increased in Montgomery County recently during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restaurateurs who launched the concepts have said they are necessary to offset lost business during the pandemic. Restaurants in Montgomery County were closed entirely for indoor dining throughout much of the winter and recently opened back at 25% capacity indoors.

Bethesda’s Tony Marciante, whose restaurant Chef Tony’s has been around for 14 years, launched the pickup and delivery business Hemi Pizza in February. Hemi Pizza serves Detroit-style pizza, which is distinguished by the use of Focaccia bread and buttery crust.

Marciante said in an interview on Thursday that Hemi Pizza was a shift he made during the pandemic to help keep his staff employed.

“Every restaurant did their own thing. Some closed down, some did just what they were always doing and we chose to continue to do what we did, but pivot as we needed to for different opportunities,” he said.

Although the county allowed a return indoor dining at 25% earlier last month, Marciante said he hasn’t seen a lot of demand at Chef Tony’s because some aren’t ready to dine in yet.

Marciante said pizza is good to make at a ghost kitchen or pop-up, because it transports well. Restaurateurs, he said, know they are living in a “new reality” nearly a year into the pandemic and must adjust.

“Thankfully, we’re not exactly trailblazing now. We can kind of say this has been going on for long enough that people get the concept,” he said.

Marciante said his restaurant spent a good deal of money on equipment for Hemi Pizza, which operates out of Chef Tony’s on St. Elmo Avenue. There is now a small investment group behind the concept, he said.

Additionally, Marciante said he is moving his downtown Bethesda restaurant due to an impending condominium development. He did not say where it will go.

“We have a couple more months where we are now [on St. Elmo Avenue],” he said. “We’re inking a deal to move Chef Tony’s, as well as Hemi Pizza in Bethesda, to another location,” he said. “We haven’t locked anything down yet, but we’re getting closer and closer.”

Evan Weinstein started Underground Pizza Company in Baltimore during the pandemic as a ghost kitchen concept, later expanding to a brick-and-mortar business. Underground Pizza also specializes in Detroit-style pizza.

Weinstein said it started as a business out of his home, delivering pizza to friends. It has grown to a ghost kitchen concept in which pizzas are prepared in other restaurants’ kitchens around Maryland.

At one point, Underground was operating a ghost kitchen out of the tapas restaurant Boca Botanas in Gaithersburg. Currently, it operates out of Olazzo in Silver Spring every Sunday.

Weinstein, who has a marketing background, said his pizza business is profitable because pop-ups are the way of the restaurant world at the moment.

He said some consumer behaviors from the pandemic might endure.

“Everyone just thought, ‘Oh, we’re just gonna open and everything’s gonna go back to normal,’” he said. “There is something you bought during COVID online that you’ll never go to a store again to buy, ever.”

Weinstein said restaurant owners not profiting right now will continue to struggle when restaurants open up more fully.

Similarly, when professional football returned, some bar owners thought more customers would come back.

“If you’re a restaurant owner, and you’re counting on the NFL or the government reopening of business, you’ve already lost,” he said.

Michael Alexander, who owns Boca Botanas in Gaithersburg, closed his restaurant temporarily in December, until more COVID-19 dining restrictions are lifted.

Alexander told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that he plans this month to launch three ghost kitchens that will operate out of his brick-and-mortar restaurant. People will order food through third-party delivery applications.

“I saw people are opening up these digital concepts overnight, and I thought, ‘Maybe digital is the way franchises are gonna go,’” he said.

Alexander said he hasn’t used the apps Grubhub, Doordash and Uber Eats before because of the commissions that restaurants must pay, which can be around 30%. But by cutting front-of-house costs, Alexander realized he could save about 20% on expenses.

Alexander said he will factor in commission rates when setting his menus and prices for the digital concepts.

“The difference for me is that I base these menus on the percentage I’m gonna be paying them, instead of me having a menu that is set for dine-in customers,” he said. “So, that way I can move forward, pay off my debt and move along and cut the front-of-house costs.”

Alexander said the concepts will be called Cruudo, which will serve the South America seafood dish Ceviche; Bagel vs. Bialy, which will serve bagel and bialy sandwiches; and a vegan ghost kitchen called Herby Vegan.

“These are more specific restaurants, but having three kind of changes the odds,” he said.

Alexander said delivery-only concepts are “much more efficient ways to put food out there” due to the requirement of fewer restaurant employees, and not needing to stock a bar.

“Under the circumstances, these three restaurants cost less than the whole Boca Botanas menu to stock up on,” he said. “I question myself all the time, and the answer keeps going ‘this is the right thing to do.’”

Other ghost kitchens

A number of other pop-up and ghost kitchen restaurants have also popped up in Montgomery County recently. Among them:

  • Ensemble in Bethesda, a food hall set to open on Cordell Avenue, in which customers place orders for pickup and delivery. Washington, D.C.-based Salis Holdings is behind the concept.
  • Savage Burrito, a ghost kitchen run out of Uncle Julio’s brick-and-mortar restaurants, started operating its delivery service this year in Bethesda and Gaithersburg.
  • Celebrity Chef Guy Fieri launched a line of ghost kitchens around the country called Flavortown Kitchen, which now operates locally out of Buca di Beppo in Gaithersburg’s Kentlands development.

Additionally, Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which has restaurants throughout the greater Washington region, has launched a series of ghost kitchens.

Company spokeswoman Molly Quigley wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat that the company is “very close” to announcing ghost kitchen concepts out of the Chevy Chase and Rockville locations.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com