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Friday, Jan 27, 2023
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‘Ghost Kitchens’ Find New Life During Pandemic

With dining rooms shuttered for the foreseeable future, the Valley’s restaurant industry has been hammered by the COVID-19 outbreak. But what about the growing number of independent food vendors that exist without tables and chairs, serving customers exclusively through pick-up and delivery services and pop-up events? Candice Coley-Thomson, owner of one such Jamaican restaurant called The Original Coley’s, says the pandemic has “completely changed our business.” Coley’s is based in Fulton Kitchens, a shared commissary facility in North Hollywood. “We were mainly doing farmers markets … and we also had a lot of catering. All of that stopped immediately,” Coley-Thomson told the Business Journal. “Because we work out of a commercial kitchen, we still do pick-up and delivery orders. But that wasn’t our main focus. We had to totally switch.” She said the restaurant opened accounts with delivery apps Postmates and DoorDash and started marketing directly to customers on social media platforms, particularly Instagram. While Coley’s has daily orders, Coley-Thomson said the restaurant-going public has been more conservative with their spending amid the outbreak. She added the initial weeks of panic buying at grocery stores mean home pantries are largely stocked, and both factors have contributed to a slowdown in business. “People aren’t sure what’s going to happen in the next few weeks,” she said. “They need to watch their dollars.” Coley-Thomson said her operation is lucky in that it has the advantage of name recognition throughout the East Valley. Coley-Thomson’s father, Don Coley, was the captain of Coley’s years ago when it was still a dine-in mainstay on Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank, before rising rents priced the business out of the neighborhood. The family kitchen has been a regional favorite for homestyle Caribbean fare such as oxtails and escovitch snapper for over a decade. “We’re fortunate we’ve been in the community for so long,” Coley-Thomson said. Even so, she said the economic contraction due to the outbreak has forced her to cut hours for her two kitchen employees by about 40 percent. Also, Coley’s is now closed on Mondays so Coley-Thomson can spend more time with her kids, who are home as schools remain closed. Also affected by the outbreak is the supply chain. Coley-Thomson said the restaurant hasn’t been able to get its Jamaican beef patties – a staple menu item – in recent weeks. Coley’s sources its patties from Caribbean Food Delights, a manufacturer of frozen Jamaican foods in New York. Because of COVID-19, the Caribbean Food Delights facility has temporarily closed and the company isn’t distributing food, Coley-Thomson said. Also, while access to fresh produce hasn’t been interrupted yet, prices for cabbage, peppers, ginger and garlic have “skyrocketed,” she said. Meanwhile, in Studio City a former entertainment studio executive is finding ways to grow his cottage food business West Coast Pretzels despite the economic shutdown. Kevin Bricklin started baking and selling hand-rolled soft pretzels out of his house as a side gig while he was an executive at Warner Bros. Entertainment. When he was laid off in 2019 after parent company Time Warner was acquired by AT&T Inc., he was able to devote more time to the pretzel venture. While the outbreak has cancelled or delayed all West Coast Pretzels’ planned events, parties and weddings, Bricklin told the Business Journal in an email that home delivery orders have gone up. “Business was going well enough for me before COVID-19 to need to move to a larger commercial facility,” he added. Bricklin is now in the process of moving into a building in Pacoima formerly occupied by fast food chain KFC. That bakery will be closed to the public, but will enable West Coast Pretzels to sell on all the major delivery apps, which don’t pick up from residential addresses. Bricklin said the coronavirus hasn’t slowed renovations at the Pacoima facility. “We are a small project so the vendors come in with a crew of (two) guys and do the work,” he said. Some traditional restaurateurs are treating the forced experiment in operating delivery-only kitchens as an opportunity for growth. Zohir Uddin is one of them. Uddin and his family run an acclaimed chain of Indian restaurants called Anarbagh with locations in Woodland Hills, Encino, Westlake Village, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles, but his dining rooms have been closed since regulators instituted social distancing orders in late March. He said his experience running kitchens with only delivery and takeout orders since then has inspired him to try opening a series of delivery-only Anarbagh restaurants when the lockdown is eventually lifted. “I didn’t have the experience before,” he said. “Now I do.”

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