Virtual restaurants and the spirit of California’s burritos past

For the past decade, Benito’s Taco Shop on Santa Monica Boulevard has been my favorite California burrito spot on the west side.

It’s my first choice, not necessarily because it’s the tastiest or chicest burrito, but because it’s the burrito that has been there for me over and over again.

Benito’s has saved many nights with the simple virtue of being open until 3am. And although I’ve had better burritos since then, I still find his California burrito delicious, with a toothy, slightly translucent flour tortilla, tender carne asada, and the option to replace potatoes with fries.

I called a few weeks ago and placed my regular order, a California burrito and three rolled tacos.

But as I drove down Santa Monica Boulevard, the familiar yellow and orange Benito sign was nowhere to be found. I checked Yelp and found the site was still active and even listed photos of the store front and an address on Santa Monica Boulevard.

I started to get very alarmed. I raced into a parking lot and started pacing up and down the block frantically, flip-flops fluttering, sweat pouring and my heart pounding. Surely they’d just moved, I thought. Please also not the one from my Benito.

The expedited delivery and collection, as well as the economic stress caused by the pandemic, have resulted in more restaurants engaging in ghost kitchens, also known as virtual or cloud kitchens.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The truth was a little harder to swallow. Benito’s had closed its stationary location some time ago and moved to a ghost kitchen in a building called Colony, a former Ethan Allen furniture room that was being converted into kitchen facilities and a dining terrace. As for the Benito sign, I finally found it on a wall.

It was displayed with more than a dozen other brands in a grid of rounded squares that was hauntingly reminiscent of the app icons on a smartphone home screen.

Colony, I learned, is an example of a new development in commercial real estate called the ghost kitchen, also known as the cloud or virtual kitchen. There are at least two in Los Angeles and one in Pasadena. Each facility is divided into multiple kitchen areas and dozens of brands, both virtual and established stationary locations like Canter, serve food from a single room.

Ghost kitchens enable restaurateurs to create brands without going through the expensive and time-consuming search for a space. Existing restaurant brands can also outsource new brands with far lower start-up costs. My colleague Roger Vincent recorded the surge a few months ago and found that setting up and renting ghost kitchens can cost as little as $ 20,000 for just $ 5,000 a month.

In Pasadena, Eats on Madison offers a dizzying array of foods from a single room, including barbecue, pizza, kabobs, tacos, burgers, musubi, sub sandwiches, burritos, wings, acai bowls, and more.

Each brand must register with the city as a separate business and apply for a community kitchen permit, said Rachel Janbek, director of the Pasadena Environmental Health Division. Each brand also receives individual food controls and pays their own taxes.

Cloud kitchens give chefs and business owners flexibility by reducing startup costs, said Blake Kaplan, a retail broker at JLL who has worked with cloud kitchens. The pandemic lockdown conditions have created delivery and collection habits that may not change with vaccines and reopening.

According to the Assn. of an international food service manufacturer. Study of delivery habits in 2017, 21% of my generation, millennials, order delivery at least three times a week. In Gen Z, the share is 24%.

A CBRE report estimates that ghost kitchens will account for 21% of total restaurant sales by 2025. The online grocery ordering business is expected to grow 64% over the same period.

Ghost kitchens are designed to help restaurants respond to these changing conditions by lowering startup costs and promoting entrepreneurship and innovation, said Jim Crocenzi, a consultant at CBRE who focuses on restaurant retailing. Ghost kitchens can open new restaurants in less than two weeks, while stationary restaurants often take more than a year to get up and running.

But I can’t help worrying about these stationary spaces, which for me are an essential, undervalued part of city life. After nearly two years of lockdown, we are all familiar with how lonely and barren life can be without these spaces to mix and interact with.

With the city and state reopening, many of us are indulging in the taste of food – any meal – that hasn’t been spent 45 minutes in a styrofoam container. We are rediscovering the joys of personal meetings in popular bars, restaurants and cafes. We learn that a city is more than just things to buy – it’s the places you visit and the people you can meet.

And now these stationary spaces are competing with fully virtual brands that have much lower costs and much greater flexibility. In a delivery app listing, it is impossible to see which brands are stationary and which only exist online.

I decided to try the burrito. My phone order from Order Colony did not go through. A member of staff told me to queue up and re-enter the order on an iPad.

And there I was, another blank face in a line of millennials in pajamas or tracksuits, all staring at their iPhones while we waited to place our orders on a smeared tablet. It was a gloomy look at what a future might look like that is entirely shaped by the wishes of my generation. Or at least what a private equity or venture capital firm interprets our wishes is based on the data gathered from our social feeds.

What if the market share of deliveries and meals increases to such an extent that the operation of a stationary restaurant is not sustainable or is so expensive that only wealthy guests can afford a meal? What if the most profitable use of our city’s buildings becomes the stage for a still unborn online juggernaut? What if Instagram traffic replaces pedestrian traffic? What if another pandemic accelerates these developments and makes them permanent? This city would not be the same.

The ghost kitchen version of the burrito I’ve been eating for more than a decade has finally arrived. I ate it over my coffee table at home as I had most of my meals in this pandemic. The food tasted as I remembered it – the tortilla was nice and chewy and the rolled tacos were drowned in guacamole and orange cheese.

I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that I had been betrayed. But in the end I was just glad that the burrito was still there.

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