Chef Franklin Becker — perhaps best known for starting the vegetable-focussed fast-casual chain the Little Beet — is gearing up to open three new restaurant concepts operating from the same kitchen at 30 Van Dam Street, in Soho, in February.
Becker’s restaurants will based out of the Zuul Kitchens, a ghost kitchen establishment at the same location, and include: Galinha, a Portuguese spot highlighting grilled chicken. Universal Taco, which will serve up corn and flour tortillas filled with ingredients like Peking duck, chicken shawarma, and Baja-style shrimp. Shai, an outpost of the venture he launched in Philadelphia, is focussed on Israeli food like chickpea stew, parlsey salad, and falafel.
“A lot of it came about from my travels,” says Becker, referring to how his pre-pandemic trips abroad inspired his restaurant concepts. “That coupled with my dining experiences and cooking in different genres.”
Instead of a brick-and-mortar location, though, Becker has gone the route of a cloud kitchen, a delivery and takeout-only establishment with no seating for customers, and multiple different restaurants operating from the same space. “To me, the consolidation of multiple concepts into one kitchen is the way of the future,” he says.
Becker acknowledges, however, that ghost kitchens present their own set of challenges. He says establishments without brand recognition or a known figure at the helm could struggle to survive or establish a presence without a physical location. On the flip side, though, Becker believes customers will increasingly rely on takeout and delivery in the years to come, making it an opportune time to open this type of business, he says.
To succeed, though, Becker says the quality of food served needs to match what customers might experience if they were seated in a restaurant. In preparation of next month’s opening, Becker has been testing different packaging materials and testing how far the food can travel in containers while determining the restaurants’ delivery radius. “If a product is not going to make the the distance, we are just not going to offer it,” says Becker.
For Universal Taco, Becker says his team nixtamalizes its own corn for the tortillas and also makes its own flour tortillas. At Galinha, he wants to “pay an homage to the authenticity and simplicity of Portuguese cooking,” which was influenced by the grilled chicken he ate in Portugal’s Cascais region. Aside from peri-peri chicken, Galinha will also have ribs and linguica sausage. And at Shai, he’s looking to build on the success the concept has experienced in Philadelphia with housemade pita bread served alongside favorites like falafel and spit-roasted chicken, accompanied by sauces including amba, harissa, and zhug.
Becker is hoping that the success of at least one of the concepts will propel him to open a brick-and-mortar location, but for now, he’s focused on running multiple restaurants from a ghost kitchen.
“If you make a mistake, you’re not making a million dollar mistake,” says Becker. “You can really learn what customers want.”
Becker is targeting a February 15 launch and says the restaurants will be available on all the major platforms including Grubhub, Doordash, and Postmates. In addition to his three concepts, Becker is also investing in another ghost kitchen concept at the same spot: Butterfunk Biscuit, a new Southern restaurant from chef Chris Scott.
Becker is just one of many that have turned to ghost kitchens during the pandemic due to their cost efficiency. Since the start of the pandemic, many restaurants have pivoted to focus on delivery, and that in turn has given rise to several ghost kitchens, and companies that operate several restaurants within the same space like at Zuul and CloudKitchens. Many in the hospitality industry have also predicted that restaurateurs could continue to turn to ghost kitchens as the pandemic drags on, making the operation of full-service establishments increasingly cost prohibitive.
Meanwhile, as Becker gets ready to debut the three new ventures in Soho next month, he’s also moving full steam ahead with the food hall he’s involved with at Columbia University’s new Manhattanville campus. The as-yet-to-be-named space is set to debut sometime this spring.