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Darren Laney has launched his new eatery, The Foodie Connect, using a ghost kitchen in Fresno and making the food available through delivery only. Photo by Breanna Hardy

published on January 26, 2021 - 1:56 PM
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Ghost kitchens — restaurants that prepare food for delivery only — were emerging even before the pandemic. But like with most industries, coronavirus catapulted already-changing business models, and restaurants are no exception. Pro Culinary in Fresno has caught on to the trend.

Pre-Covid, Downtown Fresno-based Pro Culinary started helping local catering companies expand their business to commercial scale. Now they’re pivoting to accommodate ghost kitchens. At its full potential, Pro Culinary operates like a delivery-only food court.

“We’re thinking it’s kind of the time for Fresno,” said George Temple, co-owner of Pro Culinary. “It’s been going in the Bay Area and other metropolitan areas for a few years, but I think it’s Fresno’s time.”

Temple opened the business in 2019 with Matthew McComas. They’ve gotten a lot of interest in partnering with ghost kitchens, but Darren Laney is the first to make it happen with his virtual restaurant, The Foodie Connect.

People who want to start a virtual restaurant can open up quickly.

“I just signed a contract with Pro Culinary here this week, so I’ll be opening my actual restaurant starting [this] week,” said Laney.

Laney has been cooking professionally since 2017. He finished culinary school at the Institute of Technology in Clovis and completed his externship at Disney World in Florida.

Laney’s goal is to use The Foodie Connect to bring people together virtually through a meal. He plans on giving his customers a Zoom access link for people to meet for dinner virtually and watch Laney cook “in front” of them. Then the food is delivered to the customers. The concept would create a virtual table where people can interact while their food is being prepared.

“It’s obviously a new concept, so we’ll see how it picks up,” Laney said.

Ghost kitchens like Pro Culinary can host several virtual restaurants. Popular businesses with a similar concept and national reach include Kitchen United Mix, Nextbite and CloudKitchens.

Laney is hoping to capture local interest by offering something new.

“If they’ve been on DoorDash for the past month and they see the same thing, and they see something new pop up, they might try it,” Laney said.

He’ll be exclusively on DoorDash for the first 30 days, and then look at expanding to other platforms.

Startup costs are low. DoorDash and other delivery services are offering 0% commissions for 30 days when restaurants join.

“That’s what kind of motivated me to hop on the ghost kitchen fast,” Laney said.

Laney is starting his first week offering salads, wraps and smoothies.

Something unique about virtual restaurants — the menu isn’t permanent.

“I’ll see how that concept works, but the good thing about the virtual kitchen — I can have that menu today, and then tomorrow it could be a whole new menu,” he said.

“I also think one of the real valuable items might be if you have a restaurant idea or a food truck idea, launch it as a ghost kitchen. If it doesn’t work as a ghost kitchen, kill it. But if it works as a ghost kitchen, now you have a following, you have branding, you have your menu,” Temple said.

Temple said chefs can try to open a restaurant for a few thousand dollars instead of a few hundred thousand dollars building out a brick-and-mortar.

Temple wants to start out comfortably with five virtual restaurants, but he and McComas have room for a total of ten stations if they need to expand. They have a preference for local restaurants.

Pro Culinary has also been helping caterers who are trying to grow their business and clientele.

One caterer, Victor Torres, was able to make his business legitimate. He owns Get Right Meal Prep. Torres said running his business in a commercial kitchen saves him time, space and paperwork.

“It gives him legitimacy, so because he’s here, and he’s in a legitimate commercial kitchen, he can get the bigger corporate jobs. He has insurance,” Temple said.

Though the ghost kitchen model is not in the original plan for Temple, he hopes to be a launching pad for young entrepreneurs.

“Deliveries are not going to go anywhere,” Laney said.

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