There's no question the Valley food scene has been hit hard by COVID-19. Restaurants were forced to suspend dine-in services and some are scrambling to set up better systems for takeout and delivery orders — or working to improve processes already in place.
A relatively new virtual food hall of sorts has trudged along through the crisis, although it's probably not on the radar of many folks. Its Scottsdale location just opened in December of last year, and its other locations are only a few months to a few years old. But what exactly is the “ghost kitchen” Kitchen United and its guest-facing brand, Kitchen United Mix?
First, it's not actually what one would call a ghost kitchen, says Dan Santos, general manager for Kitchen United Mix Scottsdale.
"It's called kitchen as a service, because ghost kitchen gives you the idea that it's empty, that it's literally just a kitchen and there's no one here and no support," Santos says. "There are other brands out there that are legitimately ghost kitchens, but what you find often with those is virtual brands that you've never heard of."
He means the majority of the restaurants found at Kitchen United already exist, and have physical locations in Phoenix and elsewhere. Similar concepts often offer just eateries created by and for the food hall.
In the space once occupied by a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market grocery store near Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard, Kitchen United Mix rents out a choice of two different-size kitchens to some pretty well-known names in the industry, including PF Chang's, White Castle, Boston Market, Arizona’s own Thai Chili 2 Go, and more.
The premise is, basically, that you can order takeout or delivery from multiple restaurants at the same time and only pay once.
"The demand for pickup and delivery orders in the restaurant industry grew steadily over the past few years as people looked for more convenient ways to dine," says Kitchen United CEO Jim Collins. "As we’ve grown and learned more as a company, we have created channels that allow for multi-concept ordering. If someone in the family wants sushi, while another wants a burger, multi-concept ordering can accommodate that."
Since the Scottsdale location opened a few months ago, 14 of the 16 kitchens have been filled. Most brands occupy one space each, although one owner-operator produces three different brands out of the same kitchen — Island Loco, Wing Wing Hello, and Send Some Noods.
Some restaurant owners are looking to cover more ground in the Valley, while others are hoping to supplement their brick-and-mortar operations or expand their delivery range. For example, P.F. Chang's (which is headquartered in Scottsdale) created a new concept, P.F. Chang's To Go, which offers a tighter menu specific to this kitchen. And White Castle set up a kitchen here to for delivery and to-go, assisting the busy brick-and-mortar spot.
When owners sign on, they not only get equipment and a place to cook, but also complimentary services like cleaning and coordination with shared vendors. It's a communal atmosphere where restaurants have assigned storage space and racks in the walk-in freezers and fridges.
"The idea of what we have here is that they're individual restaurants. We have the facility, and we manage the facility, we support the restaurants in a lot of ways like with marketing and tech and with industry knowledge," says Santos, a former chef himself. "We give restaurants the opportunity to just make food, and do that the best they can to attract a larger margin for themselves."
Multi-concept ordering is ideal for families with picky eaters, friends at a game night wanting to snack on a little bit of everything, and indecisive coworkers calling in a group lunch order. The goal is to serve everyone equally, whether it's delivery drivers, walk-in customers who work nearby, or people using Kitchen United Mix's own delivery channel on its website.
Along with kiosks for ordering at the front entrance, there are usually tables and chairs set up for customers and complimentary water, coffee, and tea for delivery drivers picking up. That's all changed a bit since the coronavirus hit, as those items have been, for now, packed away. Staff says business hasn't slowed down, although some restaurants like Thai Chili 2 Go opted to close for a few weeks.
"I will tell you that our business hasn't dropped, numbers in Scottsdale haven't dropped, and some of the members have started to see a slight increase," Santos says. "We don't feel that we're going to see a decline in our sales and in our business, because we're meeting the need of folks that still want to be able to eat out."
Collins says although the emergence of the coronavirus has been a challenge, Kitchen United is committed to following all the latest state and federal food preparation guidelines in an effort to mitigate risk while serving people. It’s also implemented contactless delivery for orders completed on the Kitchen United website in an effort to limit physical interaction between delivery drivers and customers.
"For many cities across the country with dining restrictions, dining out simply isn’t an option at the moment," Collins says. "We’re doing our best to serve this need and will do whatever we can to be a small part of making someone’s life a little better if they aren’t able to leave their home or eat at their favorite dining establishment."
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The setup does lend itself well to what customers are going through with the spread of COVID-19. If you're staying in, have your meal delivered by Kitchen United Mix. Or if you walk in, use a kiosk to order and your to-go order will be wheeled to you on a conveyor belt. Yes, a conveyor belt stretches through the back, by the kitchens, and then out to the front. It's the largest piece of equipment in the facility.
Santos is confident the Kitchen United Mix business model is the way of dining’s future, especially if COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the restaurant scene.
"The sales that most restaurants are experiencing now is catering and off-premise ordering. I think the current situation with COVID-19 is going to tip the scale and continue to push it farther into that direction, and a lot of restaurants are going to find ways to finally address how to handle that type of business in their four walls,” Santos says. "But I don't know that they'll be able to handle it as well as we can."