Nick Vella was a bored, furloughed restaurant-industry worker at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then he had an idea — a throwback to his early days of working at a Pizza Hut: he should make pizzas. When he began to advertise his pizzas for sale on Instagram, he was bombarded with requests from friends.
What started in his home quickly grew to become Observation Pizza, a wildly in-demand pop-up concept in Kansas City that came to employ other furloughed workers. He quickly developed a cult following for his quirky pizzas, which are named for famous people. The European Elvis, for example, is a decadent pie with Nutella, bacon, brie, pine nuts, Reese’s Pieces and Reese’s Cups, finished with basil, olive oil and bacon fat.
Vella was among the first in Missouri to embrace the idea of the ghost kitchen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as consumers were increasingly turning to takeout and delivery options. Ghost kitchens are food businesses that don’t necessarily have permanent locations — they can include companies that use rented commercial kitchens or operate in established restaurants.
After Vella’s death at age 31 in a motorcycle crash in August, Vella’s coworkers Melissa Dodd and Austin Suedmeyer took up the mantle of the business, running its operations and cooking pizzas. The three all had been furloughed from the same restaurant, The Savoy at 21c in Kansas City.
Today, Dodd and Suedmeyer alternate making pizzas from the kitchens of The Bauer, a Crossroads Arts District building that houses artists’ studios and a wedding venue, and The Savoy. Rather than calling in to make an order in real time, customers must submit their orders in advance by selecting a time slot online to pick up or have their orders delivered. Customers pay separately with a payment app.
Dodd said the unique ordering system stemmed from Vella, who realized the demand for his pizzas had grown beyond a point he could manage through Instagram. He enlisted the help of a friend to create an appointment system through Google Calendar, she said.
“At the time, it was only him and he was only working four days a week, so it just seemed easier for him,” Dodd said.
Today, customers still send in their orders in advance and select a time slot to pick up their pizzas. The business also sells ice cream and salads.
Suedmeyer said the restaurant is unlike any in which he’s worked, noting that he enjoys being able to interact directly with customers. He said the business continues to reflect its founder’s sensibility, particularly in terms of the customers, who largely were Vella’s friends.
“He really designed this around the pandemic and everything,” he said. “It’s not a regular business model, and he really kind of got in early on that wave of stuff. A lot of people now are going to smaller, takeout/carry-out/delivery versus dine-in. He was already ahead of everybody.”
Furloughed worker turns to pies
Like Vella, Amy Marcus of Kansas City was a furloughed food worker who turned to making pies — but of a different sort.
Prior to the pandemic, she worked in the kitchen and ran the social media accounts for Sura Eats, a Korean street-food restaurant in Kansas City. She was one of the restaurant’s few salaried employees.
“It just became pretty clear pretty fast that was going to be the position to go,” she said.
While furloughed, she missed having a creative outlet and decided to make pies from scratch for the first time, she said. Her first pie was a blueberry, basil and honey goat cheese pie. She shared her creations with her friends and got positive responses.
“I just kind of fell in love with it and really loved the fact that that I could come up with creative flavors,” she said.
Her friends’ encouragement spurred her to start her own business, the Sweet Tea Pie Co. She created an Instagram account and solidified a menu of five pie flavors, including a rosemary lemonade pie with strawberries and a gin-and-key lime pie.
Marcus began her business in her home. For a time, she worked out of the commercial kitchen at The Bauer, sharing a commercial space with Vella while he operated Observation Pizza. After Vella’s death, she transitioned to working from home again.
Marcus started selling pies in April. A turning point for the business came during Memorial Day weekend, when she’d generated enough buzz to sell products to strangers, she said.
Since then, she’s been able to develop enough business — selling approximately 15 to 24 pies each weekend — to nearly make up for her previous, full-time salary. She’s also switched to a fall menu, which includes chai tea chess, s’mores, pumpkin spice latte, bourbon maple pecan, and caramel apple and pancetta pies.
Each week, she holds a pickup day. Customers meet her in a park near her home, and she delivers their orders to their cars.
Marcus said she has considered expanding Sweet Tea Pie Co. to a physical location, but uncertain times make long-term planning hard. In addition to baking pies, she’s also focused on homeschooling her three children.
“There are so many unknowns,” she said. “I have a business plan for a full bricks-and-mortar and more of a future concept, but until life settles down, it’s really hard to push forward to that, as much as my entrepreneurial side would like to.”
‘Business went through the roof’
Claire Clark also has used a ghost kitchen to sell her Australian-style baked goods in St. Joseph.
She started her small business, Marble Bar Australian Bakery & Cafe, in 2019. But when her full-time job as an event planner for a local hospital was cut in March, she decided to devote more time to the bakery.
Clark is a dual Australian-American citizen who originally hails from Perth, Australia. She came to St. Joseph to live near her father, and she always had been interested in owning her own business. She also believed that locals might be open to trying Australian cuisine.
“I just had this feeling, years ago when I moved to St. Joe, that Australian food would work really well in this area because it’s still a meat-and-potatoes type of food, but a little different,” she said.
Clark’s fledgling business got a boost in 2019 after employees of the Rachael Ray Show found her through her Instagram account. They asked her to appear on an NFL playoffs-themed show, which featured a competition between cooks who represented their NFL teams.
Her sausage roll recipe did not win, but now she sees it as a good thing that her recipe remains a secret. Today, her sausage rolls are her signature dish.
She bakes from a commercial kitchen in The Metropolitan, a rental venue in downtown St. Joseph. Clark uses social media and her website to advertise what’s on the menu from week to week.
One or two days a week, customers can meet her at the venue to pick up their orders, or they can opt for delivery service.
Clark describes Australian baked goods as more savory than sweet.
“If you say pie here, most people are going to think of an apple pie or pumpkin pie,” she said. “[Australian baked goods are] more savory.”
She compares popping into a bakery to grab a sausage roll to grabbing a hamburger in the United States.
In addition to savory items such as sausage rolls, meat pies and quiches, Clark also sells creations from the sweet side, including pavlovas, cookies and cakes.
Working full-time on the bakery has turned out well for her, Clark said. Despite a lack of a storefront, she’s succeeded at getting word out about her products, and she frequently sells out.
“Business went through the roof,” she said of the beginning of the pandemic. “It was a case of timing, and I think also people — they’re at home, they can get their food delivered safely and it’s different.”
While the future is murky at this point, she aims to one day sell her goods in grocery stores and be able to ship to customers. She’d also like to have a small storefront or a drive-through, she said.
“Financially, having those overheads doesn’t make a huge amount of sense right now, not knowing what’s going to happen,” she said. “I’m just going to continue what I’m doing right now in that regard, but I’m now working on plans to get more into a wholesale [operation].”
‘Things are going to be strange’
Established restaurateurs also are warming to the ghost-kitchen concept.
David Bailey, founder of Baileys’ Restaurants, which operates eight well-known restaurants in St. Louis, said he’d wanted to launch a new concept focused on wings and fried-chicken sandwiches before the pandemic struck.
This summer, he had the opportunity to do so in his new concept called Wing Ding Dong, which he started in the company’s Baileys’ Range restaurant in downtown St. Louis.
Opening Wing Ding Dong was an opportunity to introduce a new brand and a new menu, Bailey said. It’s also an opportunity to increase revenue without expansion, he noted.
Wing Ding Dong is one of two ghost kitchens the restaurant group has launched; it also introduced Playing Ketchup, which features hot dogs and brats, in October. The ghost-kitchen concept works well at a time when uncertainty in the market makes opening up a bricks-and-mortar location difficult, Bailey said.
“The footprint of this restaurant doesn’t need to be very big, so fitting it inside the infrastructure we already have made sense,” he said.
The company started piloting Wing Ding Dong in June. Bailey began by speaking with people in different neighborhoods in St. Louis about setting up neighborhood-wide delivery on certain nights. He took orders from as many neighborhood residents as possible and dropped off the orders door-to-door.
In piloting the concept, the company was able to see what items sold well and also seek customer feedback, he said. By September, Wing Ding Dong was open for pickup from Baileys’ Range or by delivery seven days a week.
Bailey said he is looking to open more ghost kitchens, both within the company’s existing restaurants and in commercial kitchens beyond. He anticipates that consumers’ interest in delivery and carry-out will continue to drive the trend of pop-up restaurants in the coming year.
Despite their established reputation, Baileys’ Restaurants has not been immune to the struggles in the restaurant industry — the company is operating at a third of its pre-pandemic staffing level — but the company has been able to reopen six of its eight restaurants.
“We’re going to be working hard for a while, things are going to be strange for a while, but we’re going to work as a team to try to get everything going as much as we can,” he said.