DENVER — A colorful mural helps the Chef Ready ghost kitchen stand out from its neighbors on a busy Denver street. The building’s interior is a maze of doors and kitchen equipment, where expert chefs like Keven Kinaschuk are crafting a wide range of global cuisine.
“It’s eclectic. It’s fresh,” Kinaschuk said of his restaurant, McKinners Pizza.
McKinners’ first brick-and-mortar location opened in a Denver suburb in the early 2000s. The menu ranges from pierogies to deep-dish pizza.
The original location remains open today, but the business changed dramatically at the height of the pandemic.
“We went from a full-service dining room, then, when COVID hit, we went to just takeout and delivery,” Kinaschuk said. “It’s a pretty hefty undertaking. I went from 24 employees to five.”
The pandemic helped nudge Kinaschuk toward the Chef Ready ghost kitchen, which is basically a commercial kitchen used only for a to-go operation. It was a decision he’d been considering for some time.
“It seemed like more and more people were starting to order online,” Kinaschuk said. “And I thought it would be a great idea to look into that.”
Ghost kitchens have been around for a while, but they exploded in popularity in the mid-2010s, when delivery apps gained popularity in large metro areas. The pandemic accelerated the industry’s growth.
Some analysts believe the food delivery space will be a trillion-dollar industry by 2030. Ghost kitchens will be a part of that.
“The cost of going into something like this versus the cost of a brick-and-mortar, comparatively speaking, it’s a quarter of the cost,” said Nili Poynter, the founder of Chef Ready.
Poynter and her husband opened the Chef Ready space in 2020. They’d invested in restaurants in the past, but Chef Ready represents their first foray into the ghost kitchen business.
“One of our biggest lines for our tenants is their success is our success,” Poynter said. “We have done as much as we possibly can in terms of helping them succeed in their business so that they can grow it because that will only mean that we will grow.”
The Chef Ready team works with each new restaurateur on a launch plan. New business owners who enter the space have access to an experienced chef and social media team. The goal is to grow them into durable members of the community.
For Tay Wilbanks, the ghost kitchen represented a second chance. Her bar, The Greedy Hamster, closed in mid-2021.
“It was just so apparent by August ,” Wilbanks said, “even if we did open up for any sort of limited capacity, or to-go and all that, maintaining a brick-and-mortar hospitality place was going to be impossible in downtown Denver.”
Wilbanks transitioned The Greedy Hamster into a ghost kitchen space at Chef Ready in November 2021. The one-time bar still features cocktails on the menu. Wilbanks is also cooking up macarons, sandwiches and french fries.
“We’ve always had the best fries,” she said.
The transition is not a simple one. Ghost kitchens have plenty of competition from corporate chains. Cracker Barrel, Chuck E. Cheese and Wendy’s have all explored ghost kitchen concepts in order to expand their reach.
Ghost kitchen operators must also transition from a noisy restaurant to a silent kitchen. It can be difficult to gauge what’s working.
“No interactions with the customers except online or on the telephone,” Wilbanks said. “Somebody who has a typical hospitality background, that's a tough shift.”
Despite the challenges, Wilbanks believes her business is set up for success in the evolving food industry.
“It’s a learning curve, definitely,” she said. “But we’re hoping by the first of the year, we’ve found our groove and we’re heading into the sunset.”