With the number of restaurants that have shuttered in 2020—some reports put that number above 100,000—many restaurateurs have had to become creative in their business plans. Whether employing wedding-venue-size tents to accommodate outdoor dining, installing tabletop space heaters or even selling logo’d blankets for al fresco eating, chefs and owners are willing to entertain out-of-the-box solutions to social-distancing requirements. At the end of the day, all they want to do is feed people and provide hospitality in ways that feed their own souls.
Enter the ghost kitchen concept.
As far back as January of this year (which feels like a lifetime ago), the notion of converting a restaurant to providing delivery-only style meals was being bandied about. Most notably in larger cities, chefs were embracing the concept of paring down operations—eliminating servers, fancy décor, linen service and more—to focus solely on the food prepared and getting that food to customers who crave their cuisine. The benefits of this pivot enable the restaurants to stay in business while possibly reaching new customers who’d not tried their concept before.
Mauricio Papapietro, chef and owner of brick & tin in Birmingham, AL, was keen to give the ghost kitchen concept a try, with his downtown location. With his usual workday clientele now at home on zoom calls in their sweatpants, he knew it would be a long time before seeing familiar faces walk through the front door of his 20st Street location in the heart of the Magic City. His second location, in the tony suburb of Mountain Brook, AL had resumed operations after a brief initial shutdown and business was steady, while maintaining all necessary safety protocols. At the same time, his to-go orders picked up which got him thinking, especially about the technology side of the hospitality equation since it plays a significant role in executing the ghost kitchen concept. Here, the whole idea is to truly limit human interaction, beyond the meal-crafting. Papapietro began using the Toast app some time ago for brick & tin orders and appreciates the seamlessness that this platform provides. It is as user-friendly on the back-end as it is on the front-end, making it a key part of the hospitality experience.
The food is still the thing.
Mauricio is a classically-trained chef, having spent time under James Beard-award-winning chef Frank Stitt before launching his own fast casual concept in 2010. His fare represents an appreciation of local ingredients and the farmers who deliver to him, deliciously and beautifully presented, without pretense or affectation. In converting his downtown brick & tin location to a ghost kitchen, he applies his craft to the straight-up delivery model. Given that we eat with our eyes and expect even takeout meals to be visually appealing, packaging was a key component of the new concept, hence the new name: bowl.
All entrees are served in biodegradable packaging that has been thoroughly tested to withstand the rigors of delivery. Who among us has not had a takeout order look like it took a roller coaster ride before it ever got to us? We might forgive one ugly order, maybe even two if the contents are tasty enough, but in the end, we want our meal to look as good as it tastes. As Papapietro states, “The menu at bowl. has the same sensibilities as that at brick & tin—buy as much from local farmers as we can and create light, healthy compositions that combine different flavors, textures and colors—all in one bowl.”
Menu items will shift seasonally but, think chilled miso-roasted salmon with cooked heirloom grains from Anson Mills, shaved carrot salad, nuts, soybeans and satsumas from Petals from the Past in Jemison, AL. Mauricio notes, “With this menu, we plan to lean on the reputation we’ve garnered at brick & tin for healthy eating but, with a twist. Our Green Bowl features silken tofu, more heirloom grains like green bamboo rice, and kale. We like to say that this is food designed to travel well, eat well and sit well. You will feel good about what you are eating.”
Bowl. is the first such ghost kitchen concept in Birmingham, and only open for a couple of weeks now but it is easy to see why this is an adoptable concept that restaurateurs can embrace going forward. Until the streets of downtown come back to life, diners will welcome the specter of this particular ghost. As Papapietro says, “I’m fully invested in downtown Birmingham. This feels right.”