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Ghost Kitchens, Celebrities and Tech Combine to Change Dallas Dining — for Good and Bad

The grandma pie at Pizza LeilaEXPAND
The grandma pie at Pizza Leila
Kathy Tran
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The grandma pie at Pizza Leila feeds you like family. The Sicilian-style pie is a tribute to simple homestyle preparation, just as grandma would make: crust, cheese, sauce and a few basil leaves plucked fresh from a plant.

In a kitchen hidden out of sight in downtown Dallas, every component of this pizza has been stitched together from scratch. Chef Ji Kang spent two weeks developing the recipe for the dough, which had to be crispy on the bottom but soft in the middle. Two types of mozzarella mingle with a chili-kissed sauce, all topped off with basil leaves steeped in olive oil.

On busy evenings, orders buzz out of a printer onto long strips of paper, which are lined up on a rail one after another like good little soldiers. The troop is growing every day. Online chatter is spreading about this spot.

A few common items are missing at Pizza Leila, however: tables, chairs, silverware, natural lighting and chill-vibe beats playing overhead. No diners sip wine while they wait; no servers rush about carrying trays. It’s a ghost kitchen.

Ghost kitchens allow restaurants to operate without a dining room or any front-of-the-house fuss. Orders and delivery are handled online and through third-party apps. The operations have a variety of names: cloud kitchens, dark kitchens and virtual restaurants, though the latter more precisely refers to a ghost kitchen operating entirely online, unaffiliated with a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Ghost kitchens were already trendy before the pandemic temporarily shut down traditional dining rooms. Faster internet connections, ubiquitous smartphones, easy-to-use delivery apps and the growing number of workers seeking income in the gig economy laid the fuse for explosive growth, and the pandemic lit up the delivery business like the grand finale of a fireworks show.

Restaurant Dive, an industry news website, reported 1,500 ghost kitchens are operating in the U.S., citing an analysis from Euromonitor, which predicts ghost kitchens could make up a $1 trillion market by 2030 thanks to exponential growth in the demand for food delivery expected to continue post-pandemic.

For food purveyors the math is exquisite; labor costs are minimal and location is less consequential — it must be centrally located but not flashy. Opening a ghost kitchen comes at a fraction of the cost of a brick-and-mortar and without some of the painstaking, time-consuming, permitting process.

Not far from Pizza Leila, chef David Chang of New York’s Momofuku restaurant is adding another trendy twist to ghost kitchens: his name. The celebrity chef is collaborating with a food truck operation to open up an outpost of his chain Fuku, where the menu is strictly fried chicken tenders, either as a sandwich or in a basket.

Chang opened his first Fuku in New York City in 2015. A couple of years ago Eater New York described their classic sandwich as "better than ever, packing a meaty, sometimes gelatinous chew, and finishing with a fragrant habanero heat."

In early April, Fuku launched two ghost kitchen concepts in Dallas and four in Houston. A website acts as the home base for these spots, parsing diners out to third-party apps to handle all the orders and logistics.

Both concepts, Pizza Leila and Fuku, are similar in that they don't have dining rooms but are derived from chefs. One is looking to expand; the other is still working out kinks. Which is which might surprise you.

Ghost of a Chance

Sloane’s Corner is on the ground floor of the renovated Trammel Crow Center in downtown Dallas. Not long after the restaurant opened in 2019, the pandemic choked off downtown traffic. Fluctuating capacity restrictions along with interruptions caused by last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests meant reopening was a series of stops and starts.

Sloane’s Corner has a second line in its kitchen that, in normal times, is used for catering to companies in the Trammel Crow Center. That side of the business also dried up, leaving chef Kang and owner Tim McEneny seeking ways to put both lines in the kitchen back to work.

“We were getting on social media and seeing all these places, even in Europe, doing pizzas. All my friends in New York were doing pizza. So, we were like, ‘Why not try it?’” Kang says.

Soon, that second line took on a new identity: Pizza Leila. Kang, who earned his culinary degree in Dallas and worked under the tutelage of chef Stephan Pyles early in his career, created a menu of from-scratch Sicilian pizzas for carryout and delivery only.

Once Kang perfected his pies, he listed Pizza Leila on UberEats and promoted curbside pickup on their website.

“Just on the sales we had on the pizza concept, I was able to fully bring back everyone that we originally had, which was a huge deal,” Kang says. “Especially because they’re good people who were working with us. They wanted to be here. They just needed the chance to.”

Rolling in the Weeds

In 2013, Momofuku chef David Chang was bestowed the food world’s equivalent of an Oscar when he won the James Beard Award for outstanding chef. In 2016 he was Food & Wine’s best new chef; the next year he was GQ and Bon Appetit’s chef of the year. He has a collection of TV appearances to go along with two revered Michelin stars awarded to his noodle bar in New York.

Chang hosted and produced the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, a documentary series that focuses on a different cuisine in each hour-long show: pizza, tacos, home cooking, barbecue. The tagline for the series is “All the flavor. None of the BS.”

One episode is dedicated solely to fried chicken. The chef traverses the globe immersing himself in the culture and flavors of fried bird. He dives deep into the history of fried chicken in the South and has some, at times, thoughtful and uncomfortable conversations about racism.

He describes eating Nashville hot chicken that was so spicy it made him physically ill; Chang rolled around in a patch of grass before vomiting. Undeterred, he was back at the table for more, this time with the chef to learn how to properly eat without getting sick.

When word came Chang was opening two ghost kitchens in Dallas, mouths immediately began to water. Surprisingly, when the opening day finally arrived there was only a 20-minute wait for food, according to the third-party apps managing orders for the ghost kitchen.

The order from Fuku in downtown Dallas was dissapointing.EXPAND
The order from Fuku in downtown Dallas was dissapointing.
Lauren Drewes Daniels

That wasn’t quite right, as I learned after placing an order for pickup and driving over to the spot where the food is prepared, tucked away in the back of a parking lot. There was no ghost kitchen, rather a blue food truck with the words "Reef Kitchens" emblazoned across the side. Reef manages all aspects of Fuku's service; they specialize in cooking other people’s food and selling it through their stationary trucks.

According to the Reef Kitchen site, the business model is designed to help “restaurants grow and prosper, serving thousands of new hungry customers, without the need for capital investment.” Reef Kitchens has many different clients across the country.

After I placed an order with Fuku in downtown Dallas, text alerts were inaccurate and pickup times were wildly wrong. One cook said they tried to turn the delivery apps off after a four-hour wait at lunch, but couldn’t. Another cook inside the food truck attempted to soothe frustrated customers and delivery drivers buzzing outside by telling them they weren't actually cooking anything: “It’s already cooked. We’re just reheating it, so it won’t be much longer.”

For $14.50, the waffle fries were inedible and a can of soda was tepid. Dull chicken strips came stuffed in a dry bun.

A Celebrity Spin

For some restaurants, ghost kitchens were a lifeline during the pandemic, a way to keep staff employed and grills hot. For diners, ordering from a tasted-but-not-seen kitchen has a touch of mystery. Attaching a famous name to a ghost kitchen ups the ante. In the past year, a handful of celebrity spots have popped up across North Texas.

For example, Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen serves hamburgers, wings and other things, all stuffed in a box slapped with bright images of the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host. Locally, this ghost kitchen is based in two restaurants; Buca di Beppo and Brio Italian Grill, both in Southlake and both owned by restaurateur Robert Earl.

Earl has a long history of pairing celebrities and restaurants; in 1991 he founded the show-biz-themed eatery Planet Hollywood. A-list stars like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were involved. Throughout the ’90s, Planet Hollywood openings around the world were red-carpet affairs.

Earl has continued to open and close concepts since and was even on an episode of Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2017.

More recently, Earl launched Virtual Dining Concepts (VDC), a delivery-only food business with some celebrity attachments, such as rapper Tyga’s chicken bites, singer Mariah Carey’s cookies, tortas by actor Mario Lopez and Guy Fieri's Flavortown Kitchen. According to the site, the menus are created by their chef, the culinary director of VDC, and “they can be reproduced in a wide range of kitchens with minimal training.”

Theoretically, one could order Guy Fieri’s macaroni cheeseburger, Tyga’s chicken bites and Mariah Carey’s cookies through one restaurant — Buca di Beppo in Southlake — all via a third-party delivery app.

Hoodwinked

According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 110,000 restaurants and bars closed, either temporarily or permanently, in the U.S. in 2020. Overall, business was down $240 billion. Meanwhile, online delivery orders, either through third-party service providers or directly through restaurants, jumped by 27%, according to Statista.

The delivery service Grubhub reported around $1.8 billion in revenue in 2020, an increase of more than $500 million from the previous year.

To what degree and in what form the ghost kitchen model will persist after the restaurant industry returns to normal is a matter of debate. When Food Fanatics' Megan Rowe wrote that "ghost kitchens could be the future of restaurants — and your success," Grubb Street's Rachel Sugar threw a yellow flag and penned a piece titled, "Ghost kitchens will always be dumb."

Sugar writes, "What ghost kitchens are not, as should be clear by now, are restaurants. They are food-logistics operations, and you could argue that is fine. Who cares if your fried chicken is from an abstract concept that is also an ice-cream parlor, which also sells roast beef?"

Some foodies might not care that their meal has some sort of faux-celebrity alignment; some might feel hoodwinked. Do we think Mariah Carey spent weeks researching the perfect vanilla for her cookies? Maybe not, but, to a fan, is having the singer’s cookies delivered on a rainy Friday night tempting? Maybe, if the cookies are any good.

As chef Ji Kang might testify, a good dish developed with care can create its own kind of celebrity. A warmed-over chicken sandwich from the back of a food truck, though, doesn’t get any better no matter whose name is attached to it. And that’s assuming you can get one.

Growing the Grandma Pie Business

Despite not having signs or a storefront, word about Pizza Leila, which is named after the owner's daughter, has spread. A social media post lauding the Sicilian pie on a Facebook group for downtown residents drew attention. Regulars know they can order it at Sloane's Corner, particularly on Mondays when bottles of wine are half off. The office building is starting to fill up again, and Kang says the workers also “know” about the pizza.

They're starting to outgrow the space, which is a great problem to have after a challenging year in a difficult industry, he says.

“I don’t know where the happy medium is going to be, but I do know there’s only a certain amount of product that can be delivered from the kitchen,” Kang says. One thing he’s not willing to do is serve marginal food out of either kitchen.

Having established a customer base and tested a product in the market, Kang and McEneny are exploring options for a permanent, brick-and-mortar location.

Ghosted

Fuku deserved another chance. Perhaps it’s not fair to form an opinion on the first day of business (though they did charge for the food that day).

So, on an unseasonably cool and drizzly day in May, I placed another order using their website and then an app. This time pickup wasn’t an option, so Postemates was set to deliver a sandwich and a basket of chicken tenders.

The food truck was just a few miles away and, at first, the order was scheduled to arrive in about 30 minutes. As the minutes ticked off, the delivery window fluctuated: 27 minutes, 55 minutes, back to 27 minutes and so on. At one point, it was scheduled to arrive in just 7 minutes. Sheltering under an awning out of the light rain, I waited to meet the delivery person. A few minutes passed before the phone dinged again.

“Oh no! Your Postmates order has been canceled because no Postmates were available to complete your delivery.”

We reached out to Fuku for comment but did not hear back.

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