Tom D’Ambrosio, center, is co-owner of BLT Kitchens, a ghost kitchen in North Central Phoenix. Behind him are, from left, Devan Cunningham and Reece Robbins, with The Good Food Table, and Casey Moran and Carol Saldado, with ProKeto Snacks (photo by Marjorie Rice).

“Ghost Kitchens” — the name conjures up Halloween-ish images of goblins at the cooktop. Actually, they’re communal prep spaces and commissary kitchens, where restaurants, caterers, food trucks, meal-preparation services and others in the food business can create full meals or specialty items, without the cost of traditional brick-and-mortar locations.

Or they can be “virtual restaurants,” a brand whose recipes are prepared in a brick-and-mortar restaurant that could be turning out delivery-only dishes for several virtual brands in addition to its own menu items.

Customers order online through a delivery service such as Grubhub, DoorDash or Uber Eats. The order comes to the individual restaurants via computer. They prepare the food, and alert the delivery company when it’s available for pickup.

It’s a relatively new option for restaurants, given a boost by the COVID-19 pandemic, when customers relied on online ordering and delivery for their favorite restaurant meals. As COVID eased, and dine-in restaurants re-opened, customers kept on ordering delivered meals, providing steady business for delivery and pickup-only companies.

The online presence for a restaurant operating out of a ghost kitchen looks just like one for a brick-and-mortar location. What makes them different is they offer delivery and pickup options only — no booths, no servers, no dine-in services at all.

North Central Phoenix boasts two such ghost food prep kitchens.

The Highland Food Hub, at Highland and 7th Avenue, is a sort of kitchen condominium, with up to 30 individual kitchens available for lease, as well as communal food storage including freezers and refrigerators. It offers on-site pickup and delivery services for its customers, which include restaurants, caterers and meal preparation companies.

BLT Kitchens, at 7th Street and Dunlap, is a 14,000-square-foot shared kitchen space.

On a given day you might find folks from AZ Lemonade Stand squeezing fruit for their juices, side-by-side with cooks from Modern Tortilla Food Truck and Catering, and Super Mac Bros. BLT customers sell through online delivery, food trucks, farmers markets and catering.

And there’s that other type of ghost kitchen, a virtual food service operating inside a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Tom D’Ambrosio is co-owner of BLT Kitchens with Kyle Hollenbeck. In addition to their BLT operations in North Central Phoenix and East Mesa, the pair also own Aioli Gourmet Burgers, which has three locations and several food trucks in the Valley.

The partners opened a commissary kitchen to handle their growing restaurant and food truck business. They bought the North Central location and made it available for other food service companies.

But that wasn’t their first ghost kitchen experience.

“We were one of the first companies to operate a ghost kitchen, and that was in 2013 out of our Aioli Burgers,” D’Ambrosio said. “We didn’t know that was what they were called.”

Here’s how it works: a North Phoenix customer who orders a MrBeast Burger — a popular brand for online ordering — will get a burger that has been prepared in an Aioli kitchen to MrBeast’s specifications and sent out in that brand’s packaging.

It’s a great way for someone with a food concept to expand their market without the expense of their own kitchen or sit-in restaurant, allowing MrBeast to have virtual “locations” across the country.

And it provides income for the ghost kitchen at little extra cost.

“Our staff is already there in the Aioli kitchens, and we’re paying for that,” D’Ambrosio said. “To add a few extra orders an hour helps the restaurant be able to pay our employees more.”

Jasmine Valentine, general manager at Urban Beans, readies ingredients for a vegan burrito (photo by Marjorie Rice).

Ghost kitchens got their start around the same time as online food delivery services, and they got a big boost during the pandemic, when people were confined to home but still wanted a restaurant meal. The kitchens provided operating space for food operators who wanted to stay in business, as well as start-ups at a time when buying or building a dine-in restaurant wasn’t possible.

Ghost kitchen owners can operate on a shoestring, particularly when it comes to staff.

At Urban Beans, for example, in the Highland Food Hub, general manager Jasmine Valentine and cook Deanna Rodriguez are the only employees. Valentine works mornings, overlapping with Rodriguez at lunch, then Rodriguez covers evening orders. The company is owned by Virginia Senior, who developed most of the recipes, in conjunction with Valentine.

Urban Beans had a brick-and-mortar location at 7th Street and Osborn Road.

“COVID happened and everybody was ordering in instead of going out,” Valentine said. That location was closed and the company moved into the Hub last October. Will they make the transition back to a building of their own?

“If the opportunity arises, we’d love to do it again,” Valentine said. “Right now, we’re focusing on growing our catering. We also are getting into farmers markets — we’ll be in the Uptown Farmers Market on Central Avenue in the coming month — and this commissary is really good for that.

“The kitchen has helped us transition to catering and farmers markets that allow us to get our deli items to the public.”

Farmers market customers will be able to buy vegan deli slices, cheeses, lasagna, marinara, pickles and charcuterie boards.

The charcuterie boards are a new service, with vegan cheeses and meats. They’ll be available in coming months for catering and farmers markets, as well as online ordering. Check with Urban Beans for scheduling.

Sylvia Menchaca, left, Mateo Menchaca and Mercedes Martinez operate Sylvia’s La Canasta from the Highland Food Hub (photo by Marjorie Rice).

In another Highland Hub space, Sylvia Menchaca, former owner of Sylvia’s La Canasta restaurant at 7th Avenue and Missouri, was working with her son, Mateo, and longtime employee Mercedes Martinez. Her restaurant closed in 2018, after 30 years. Recently, they closed another location, in Deer Valley.

“We looked for a place but there weren’t any,” Menchaca said. “I thought what are we going to do? I have to have a place for all our customers. So, I looked at ghost kitchens and found this one, right in my stomping grounds.”

The kitchens are, to put it mildly, snug, and that works fine for Menchaca.

“The fact that it’s very small makes us more efficient. We have learned that we can do a lot with a lot less. We used to have a mixer three times the size of the one we use here. We learned we don’t need all that equipment and expense when we can just downsize.”

While Menchaca plans to keep the Hub location for prep and catering, she hopes to find a brick-and-mortar site for a new Sylvia’s La Canasta.

“In our next restaurant we’re going to set it up like this, and we’re going to work smaller and faster,” she said.

Alaina O’Donnell, owner of The Simple Chefs meal delivery service, prepares meals at BLT Kitchens (photo by Marjorie Rice).

Over at BLT, Alaina O’Donnell owns The Simple Chefs, a meal delivery service. She has no plans to have her own place, preferring instead the convenience and economy of the commissary kitchen.

“We chose this kitchen for the space,” O’Donnell said. “They’re large enough to hold everything we need. And we appreciate the low overhead. If you were trying to own and operate this space on your own, it would stop you before you even got started.”

“The cards are so stacked against you in this food business that you need all the help you can get,” D’Ambrosio said. “Our goal has been to provide a space where people can grow their business, learn from other people and eventually move on to their own space. I find a lot of joy in seeing people realizing their dreams.”

The Highland Food Hub is located at 720 W. Highland Ave. Orders may be placed in person in a kiosk at the Hub, or online through each restaurant’s website. The Hub is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

For restaurants, visit their individual websites or call a food delivery service for their specific hours of operation. For information about leasing space at the Hub, call 602-805-0964, or visit www.highlandfoodhub.com.

Urban Beans Vegan is open for orders from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 4 to 8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. For information, call 602-595-2244 or email onlineordersub@gmail.com.

Sylvia’s La Canasta Central Phoenix Cloud Kitchen is open for orders from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. For information, call 602-740-8871 or visit www.sylviasfiesta.com.

For information about The Simple Chefs meal service, call 480-882-8565 or visit www.thesimplechefs.com.

Author

  • Marjorie Rice

    Marjorie Rice is an award-winning journalist, newspaper food editor, travel editor and cookbook editor with more than three decades' experience writing about the culinary industry.