Over the past three months we’ve watched restaurant chefs, owners and operators scramble to survive the realities of the times by pivoting to take-out and delivery. These stopgap measures might help to keep the lights on, but not indefinitely.
But what if you didn’t have the fixed costs associated with a brick-and-mortar restaurant to worry about? That’s the idea behind virtual, or ghost, kitchens. These kitchens can be located in low-visibility (aka low-rent) areas close to the dining public, with less reliance on amenities like parking not to mention dining rooms, tableware and beefed-up staffs.
“The minute you open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, your costs just skyrocket,” explains Doug Katz, chef and owner of Zhug, Chutney B and Fire. “If you’re down to 50 percent or 25 percent of your business, there’s no way you can make it work in a brick and mortar. And then the experience that you’re hoping to provide isn’t there either.”
Katz has a spacious commercial kitchen in Cleveland Heights that happens to be the ideal site for a ghost kitchen. The large space at the former Katz Club Diner, also home to Rising Star Coffee, is the site of Fire Catering, which has taken an even bigger hit than the restaurants.
“Large-scale catering is nonexistent at the moment,” Katz says. “I just happen to have a great kitchen that I would love to use and so this worked out perfectly.”
Chimi (216-932-3333), which opens for dinner service Friday, June 12, will have no public access. The food that will be prepared inside will be packaged up for delivery or curbside pickup. The menu will feature Katz’ and chef Cameron Pishnery’s take on South American cuisine.
“This is something we wanted to do for a while and had planned on doing it after Zhug, so we decided why not use this time and launch it this way and create something that is really fun for people all summer,” he states. “It also gives us a chance to test it out.”
Whereas Chutney B at Van Aken District showcases the flavors of Indian- and Thai-spiced rice bowls, and Zhug in Cleveland Heights is a vehicle for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean small plates, Chimi will focus on dishes emanating from South America.
“We’re not pretending that we’re experts – and we’re not – but we like having fun with food and I love food with flavor and spices,” adds Katz.
Diners can look forward to flavorful stews, braises, rice and beans dishes, and composed cold salads and plates. Great condiments like aji verde will tie it all together in the same way that fiery zhug does down the hill. The menu will start on the small side, says Katz, with room to expand down the road.
As for Fire, Katz’ 20-year-old flagship restaurant at Shaker Square, there still are no plans to reopen at this time.
“There are so many mountains that we would have to climb to get back to normal,” Katz explains. “With the coronavirus, with the economic issues, with the style of dining that we do, there is no way we can chance reopening it the way it was and hope that we do 25 to 50 percent of the clientele. If we did 80 percent of the customers we probably can’t make a profit.”
Katz says the only way he would likely reopen Fire as it previously existed is if there was a vaccine.
“I promise everyone that there will be a Fire; it will come back, we just don’t know when right now.”