Delivering on a spirited delivery-only dining concept, ghost kitchens are growing in Southwest Florida. Rather than apparitions of something dead, ghost kitchens are real phenomena that are very much alive … and becoming livelier by the moment.
Ghost kitchens, sometimes called cloud kitchens or virtual kitchens, are behind restaurant brands that don’t have dining rooms, servers or even brick-and-mortar locations. They operate only virtually, sometimes as a side hustle or symbiotic relationship in commercial kitchens of established restaurants. Third-party delivery apps such as DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats generally make the concepts click.
While recent efforts have been fueled by social distancing, virtual dining concepts were already working behind the scenes before the pandemic. Restaurateurs enjoy a large return on investment because of the low overhead costs to operate a ghost kitchen.
Naples resident Telni “Tony” Brito, who opened his sixth location of Napoli on the Bay Pizzeria in January and plans another this summer in Bonita Springs, started his first virtual restaurant, Martinelli’s Pasta Bar, after he was approached by Uber Eats three years ago. Now, he has at least a half dozen other virtual restaurants operating out of ghost kitchens at his pizzerias, local brick-and-mortar operations established more than 35 years ago on Naples Bay.
To say his business is booming would be an understatement. “It went up at least 50%,” says Brito, noting that success through trial and error didn’t happen overnight. “It took a little bit, probably a year, before it really took off.”
Brito uses his own drivers to deliver his own virtual restaurant brands. Although they all basically deliver the same New York-style pizza and pasta dishes, the names are different: Naples Pizza Co., Paradise Pizza, Pizza 239, Marco Pizza Co., Tony’s Pizza. When hungry tourists use a third-party delivery app to order a pizza, chances are good that Brito’s brands dominate the options. “It’s more chances for people to find me. There are six or seven different names,” he says.
Restaurant chains are jumping into this new name game, too. Tender Shack was hatched at Carrabba’s, It’s Just Wings fly out the door at Chili’s, Neighborhood Wings take flight at Applebee’s and Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings grew out of Chuck E. Cheese.
In April, Bravo Italian Kitchen at Mercato, Brio Tuscan Grille at Waterside Shops and Buca di Beppo in North Naples each were ad- advertising for full-time virtual ghost kitchen cooks because of rapidly expanding business. In addition to their regular menus, the local kitchens for these national restaurant chains churn out orders for four virtual restaurants: Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen, MrBeast Burger, Mariah’s Cookies and Wing Squad.
Brio at Waterside Shops in Naples has found unexpected success with its ghost kitchen brands from Virtual Dining Concepts, which shares ownership with these restaurant chains. “It has done wonders for us,” says Brian Wells, general manager of the No. 1 Brio in the nation. Initially, the restaurant treated its ghost kitchen venture sort of like a menu change, Wells said. “We were all very skeptical about this when it first came,” he says. “I cannot express how much we all were not looking forward to this, and I cannot express how much we are all now thankful for it.”
Because of the pandemic, Brio already had a lot of carryout orders, but Wells soon found that his regular hostesses and kitchen crew for Brio were not enough to handle the onslaught of online orders from the ghost kitchen brands, especially Flavortown and MrBeast Burger, a social media icon creation.
Brio phased in the different ghost kitchens over the winter months. Mariah Carey’s cookies started in the first week of December, to take advantage of holiday sales. Two weeks later, they rolled out Wing Squad, followed by MrBeast in the second week of January and Fieri’s Flavortown in early February. “We take care of ordering all the food and everything, but they take care of the promotional materials,” Wells says. “It’s just easy-executed food that doesn’t take a lot of thought process into it. So, it’s just cook it and get it out.”
That being said, operating virtual restaurants has a learning curve, so kitchen crews have been learning as they go. “We had to find a way how to be able to execute Brio and also introduce this other restaurant into our building. It took about a week of just learning and learning and figuring out,” Wells says. “We arranged our kitchen probably 17 times in the past three months.”
But the initial risk and work and shifting responsibilities has been paying off. “Between all four concepts over the past three months, I keep adding anywhere between $100,000 to $150,000 in sales. That translates into a lot more jobs, or a lot more hours for my employees that I already had.”