If it seems there’s been an influx of virtual restaurants in Chicago — that is, takeout and/or delivery-focused restaurants without an actual dining room — it’s because there has been. Dine-in capacity restrictions, concerns about the health and safety of patrons and restaurant staff, as well as general interest in comfort foods are all fueling the rise of virtual restaurants during the pandemic. And both chefs with existing physical restaurants as well as home cooks are cashing in on Chicagoans staying home.
Not only can virtual restaurateurs squash COVID-19 safety concerns associated with dining out, they can also better manage operations with fewer labor, rent and even food costs when offering a streamlined menu. Chef Will Schlaeger (Next, Saison, Blackbird), who recently opened virtual sandwich shop Cat-Su Sando, says virtual restaurants are “the only way to open a restaurant with basically no money,” with co-owner chef Shawn Clendening (Oriole, Saison, Blackbird) adding, “The pivot to a cloud kitchen seemed like the most intelligent move for us given our budget and the current social climate.”
Virtual concepts allow chefs creativity with how they get their menu items into the hands of diners, as well as the execution of the menu itself. As owner of virtual Japanese curry house, Bokuchan’s, chef Shin Thompson explains, “What I really love about virtual restaurants is that as chefs we can be creative and explore concepts that would normally be considered too risky for a brick and mortar shop. The goal for many of us is to be well positioned for when restaurants are once again thriving by taking the data of our virtual restaurants and determining what people really like.”
Others changed operations entirely once the pandemic hit. Jenn Kaplan, owner of Five Squared Food Truck, shifted gears toward pickup and delivery from its commercial kitchen once its food truck events were being canceled due to the pandemic. “We knew what we had to do and that was to have our very first pickup day from our commercial kitchen that we named Five Squared Friday. We made a post about it on social media and received a bunch of preorders … We’ve sold out every week since early April.”
However, there are some disadvantages that come along with opening a virtual restaurant. Giancarlo Valera, Executive Chef of Tanta, which launched a new virtual-only concept, El Arrocero, notes, “With a virtual kitchen, we get to save in labor but need to deal with high third-party ordering platform fees. We want to reach as many existing and new customers, which requires being on as many platforms feasible.”
The many advantages of operating a virtual restaurant means Chicagoans are bound to see new concepts popping up over the coming months as restaurants struggle to stay afloat in the current economic climate. Additionally, these concepts provide a more affordable way to enjoy a meal “out” as diners cut back spending in a recession.
Here are a few of our favorite examples, which you can find all over Chicago.
Chefs Schlaeger and Clendening opened a Japanese sandwich shop in mid-September with four varieties of their signature sandos, like the Cat-Su with fried pork cutlet, pickled bok choy, Cat-Su Sauce and egg between milk bread. You’ll also find grilled skewers, okonomiyaki and several snacks on the menu. Items are available for pickup or delivery, while Cat-Su Sando plans to open a brick and mortar location next year.
Chicago Secret Burger
This Instagram concept features what else — burgers (plus cookie ice cream sandwiches). Watch out for an Instagram story from its account when the latest burger drop is available. Due to high demand, burger order requests are raffled off to a set number of lucky winners for pick up only.
Five Squared Pizza
Detroit-style squares are the specialty of the aptly named food truck-turned-virtual-kitchen. Mix and match pizza by the slice like Italian beef with giardiniera, Buffalo chicken, pimiento cheddar mac and cheese, and classics like homemade sausage, pepperoni or pesto. Salads, desserts and cold brew coffee can be added to your order. Check out Five Squared’s current menu via Instagram each Monday, place your order via DM by Thursday (or before they sell out), and pick up or have your order delivered on Friday.
Every week chef Jasmine Sheth features a different region of India; her aim is to bring awareness to lesser-known Indian cuisine. Menus go live each Sunday on Instagram with orders available for pickup or delivery each Saturday. Each thali-style menu features a variety of dishes and sides, most recently including smoked paneer salan (an umami-rich sauce), plus add-ons like marinated lamb shank and bhakri (whole wheat flatbread cooked in ghee).
Chefs Shin Thompson and Liga Sigal launched Chicago’s first Japanese curry shop in September. Bokuchan’s comforting Japanese curry — the national dish of Japan — is made from scratch and available in options ranging from beef and chicken to a vegan chickpea and sweet potato variety. Chicken and pork katsu and curry fries are other options on the takeout and delivery menu.
Brother and sister Rafael and Elizabeth Royal launched this takeout-and-delivery-only burger concept inside a shared space called Cloud Kitchens. While the duo’s backgrounds are in upper-casual and steakhouse concepts, they opted for a simple menu of burgers, sandwiches, wings and fried sides.
This multi-concept ghost kitchen is home to a handful of to-go concepts featuring new restaurants as well as virtual outposts of existing concepts like 800 Degrees pizza and LA’s Lucky Bird fried chicken. Menus feature comfort food classics like burgers and wings, as well as lighter fare including poke bowls and build-your-own Mediterranean plates.
Professor Pizza, aka Tony Scardino, specializes in grandma-style pan pizzas. Each week’s menu features signature pies like pepperoni and margarita, plus rotating “Extra Credit” chef special styles including Chicago cracker thin and neo-Neapolitan with toppings like gyro with tzatziki and whipped feta, or speck and arugula. Look out for new menus each Monday on Instagram or Tock.
The team behind Peruvian spot Tanta offers a wide variety of globally-inspired rice bowls from countries including Japan, Spain, Thailand and Italy. Try the Squash Risotto with oyster mushrooms, kabocha squash, truffle oil, parmesan, and garlic aioli or the Arroz Paella with saffron bomba rice, Spanish chorizo, wild shrimp, calamari, broccoli and roasted garlic aioli.
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