Grand Rapids ‘ghost restaurants’ to remain after reopenings

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Even as Grand Rapids restaurants prepare to reopen their dining rooms beginning Monday, “ghost restaurants” grown during the coronavirus pandemic are here to stay.

When COVID-19 forced restaurants to close in mid-March, some owners quickly adapted by using their empty kitchens and a skeleton crew to answer growing demand for takeout comfort food. The concept is called a ghost restaurant.

“If you come down here, the signs say New Hotel Mertens everywhere. But we actually run another restaurant under that same kitchen — a different brand, a siloed brand,” explained Anthony Tangorra, owner of 9th Street Steaks and Pronto Pasta ghost restaurants.

Max’s South Seas Hideaway co-owner Mark Sellers noticed the ghost restaurant trend in big cities and thought he would try it here.

All the owners News 8 spoke with agree that while ghost restaurants can’t replace the revenue they lost during the monthslong shutdown, they help pay bills and create new opportunities.

“These additional businesses… pretty much came out of nowhere and got a shot because of the pandemic,” Tangorra said.

“We could have never, we could have never opened 9th Street Steaks inside New Hotel Mertens without the pandemic. But now we have this track record of revenue and sales that we wouldn’t have had without the pandemic, that can help justify taking 9th Street Steaks off-site… when the time comes,” he added.

Because social distancing requirements will cut restaurants’ dine-in capacity, Grand Rapids’ ghost restaurants will continue running to help cover the loss in business.

Both Tangorra and Sellers think more ghost restaurants will pop up as the industry evolves, but Sellers expects menus to change.

“You know, people will retool concepts or they’ll try it, they’ll experiment and then close it down,” he said. “That’s kind of the benefit of a ghost restaurant — it’s very easy to start, but it’s also very easy to shut down if it’s not working.”

9th Street Steaks

(An undated courtesy photo provided by Mertens Hospitality shows the menu options from ghost restaurant 9th Street Steaks.)
  • Opened: March 29
  • Operating at: New Hotel Mertens, 35 Oakes St. SW
  • Hours: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
  • Menu: Cheesesteak, onion rings, fries and milkshakes, all made from scratch
  • Ordering: Through GrubHub, Uber Eats and for curbside pickup.

Tangorra says the pandemic sped up his plan to create new brands built around the growing trends of high-quality, chef-driven comfort food available exclusively by takeout, delivery and drive-thru.

“Suddenly (I) looked around and said ‘Geez, we have a lot of access kitchen capacity. What are we going to do with it?’” Tangorra said.

Two weeks later, 9th Street Steaks opened.

“(Demand) has been really, really strong and we’ve been gratified because it is an expensive sandwich, relatively,” Tangorra said.

He said that’s because like New Hotel Mertens, 9th Street Steaks painstakingly creates every component in house, even the cheese sauce on its cheesesteak.

“I’ve never heard of any cheesesteak anywhere making everything from scratch,” Tangorra said. “When you have our bread, it’s because we took out flour and water and yeast in the morning and started making our bread from scratch.

“We’ve had our guests say that (our cheesesteak is) the best outside of Philly anywhere,” he added.

Both 9th Street Steaks and Pronto Pasta will be available to guests when New Hotel Mertens’ Bakery and Haute Rooftop Bar reopen Monday.

Visitors to both places will now have to walk up to a counter for service and order using an online contact-free queue system. Tangorra said the restaurants are also installing plastic shield guards where customers are cashed out.

The bakery will have an expanded menu and outdoor seating. The rooftop bar will use chalkboard menus and offer more draft wines to reduce contact points.

Tangorra said that when New Hotel Mertens’ Brasserie reopens later and traffic picks up, he hopes to move both of his ghost restaurants to high-traffic spots in the Grand Rapids area.

Pronto Pasta

(An undated photo provided by Mertens Hospitality shows the macaroni and cheese dish available through ghost restaurant Pronto Pasta.)
  • Opened: May 21
  • Operating at: New Hotel Mertens, 35 Oakes St. SW
  • Hours: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
  • Menu: Italian dishes made completely in house, including five pasta options, bruschetta and zeppole. Vegan and gluten-free options available.
  • Ordering: Delivery through GrubHub or curbside pickup through Open Dining. Uber Eats delivery coming soon.

“The reason that the whole Pronto Pasta concept came to mind for us was because we thought in the marketplace today and (along) the major boulevards in Grand Rapids or across the country, good drive-thru, takeout, delivery pasta is missing,” said Tangorra.

The ghost restaurant also allows Mertens Hospitality to use the pasta equipment it bought a couple years ago.

“We just love when we can make really beautiful chef-crafted pasta from it. But you don’t need many people for it, which is great,” Tangorra explained

He says the menu started with penne pasta in a tomato-based pork and sausage gravy sauce his mother cooked for his Italian family weekly. The menu also includes a traditional American macaroni and cheese as well as a vegan version. Each pasta dish ranges from $15 to $19 and is enough to feed two people, according to Tangorra.

He said Pronto Pasta eventually plans to offer ready-to-cook pasta for people to take home.

All pastas are vegan and gluten-free options are available.

“The most important thing to know about both 9th Street Steaks and now with Pronto Pasta is that we take no shortcuts. They’re both made painstakingly with love from scratch every step of the way… (and) both are really great for take-out,” he said.

Annika’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese Laboratory

(An undated courtesy photo provided by Annika’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese Laboratory shows one of the grilled cheese sandwiches on the menu paired with tomato soup.)
  • Opened: May 7
  • Operating at: Max’s South Seas Hideaway, 58 Ionia Ave. SW
  • Hours: Thursday through Sunday, 3 p.m. – 9 p.m.
  • Menu: Eleven versions of a double-stacked grilled cheese sandwich, with different fillings and toppings. Includes the mushroom-filled ‘Shroom Therapy and popular classic, dubbed Plain Jane. Served with creamy thick tomato soup.
  • Ordering: At; available for pickup or delivery within a 5-mile radius

Named for Sellers’ grilled cheese-loving 2-year-old daughter, Annika’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese Laboratory takes the traditional comfort food to another level.

“There’s no concept in Grand Rapids that focuses specifically on grilled cheese. As, you know, a lot of restaurants will have one grilled cheese on the menu, but I wanted to do a whole concept with just grilled cheeses,” Sellers said.

Sellers said he wanted to create a meal that travels well and will “hit the spot at this time in everyone’s lives.”

“Everybody’s kind of freaked out right now and everybody’s kind of out of their element,” Sellers said. “It’s just a weird time for everybody. So I think people are kind of in the mood for comfort food and something to make them feel comfortable. And so grilled cheese will do that to ya.”

Sellers anticipates slower sales when Max’s reopens at a limited capacity, so Annika’s will continue to fill orders until the main restaurant is bustling again.

“It’s basically a concept that helps us fill spots, fill times when we need the business… that’s what it was created for. Right now, every time is a time that we need extra business. But eventually it’ll just be used to fill spots, fill days, and times when we’re slow,” he explained.

Sellers has been busy preparing his restaurants for reopening on June 13, adding new signs and procedures. Menus will be available online via smartphone, tables will be six feet apart, employees will wear masks and gloves and must review a 20-page guide and patrons will be asked to wear a mask when they’re not eating.

“They’ve done surveys of people in other states that are reopened already, their restaurants. And customers say the No. 1 thing that’s most important to them when deciding which restaurant to go to is whether they feel like it’s safe, clean environment more than the taste of the food,” Sellers said. “I mean, that might change in three months or six months, but for right now, when we first reopen, I mean, that’s got to be top priority for us. So we’re taking it really seriously.”

Wilbur’s Fried Chicken

(An undated photo provided by Garage Bar & Grill shows Wilbur’s Fried Chicken’s lone menu item: the Wilbur.)
  • Opened: In March
  • Operating at: Garage Bar and Grill, 819 Ottawa Ave. NW
  • Hours: 11 a.m. – 7:35 p.m. daily
  • Menu: Two deep-fried chicken cutlets and three spicy chicken wings served with secret recipe barbecue and hot sauces. Includes fries, homemade coleslaw and white bread with butter.
  • Ordering: Through Uber Eats only.

Garage Bar & Grill Owner Kevin Farhat said Wilbur’s Chicken served up its first meal about three months ago.

“We read about it out of Chicago and decided to take a swing at it,” he said.

The ghost restaurant churns out just one dish that was created based on the Garage Bar’s most popular menu item: chicken tenders. Farhat said Wilbur’s Chicken uses the same batter and adds a secret mix of spices.

Garage Bar will reopen to dine-in guests on Monday with fewer tables and chairs for social distancing purposes and with employees who’ve gone through a COVID-19 training program laid out by the city. Guests can also opt out of the traditional menu to reduce touch points, scanning a QR code displayed at their table to pull up a menu on their smartphone.

“It’s been a great opportunity to serve the people and hopefully we’ll get back to a little bit of normal come Monday,” Farhat said.

But the reopening won’t spell the end for Wilbur’s Chicken. Farhat said the ghost kitchen will continue to take orders and he may look at moving the brand into its own restaurant site in the future.

“It’s in it for the long haul,” he said.

Ghost Kitchen To Go

(An undated photo provided by Linear Restaurant shows one of Ghost Kitchen To Go’s paninis.)
  • Opened: Mid-May
  • Operating at: Linear Restaurant, 1001 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
  • Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 4 p.m. – 9 p.m.
  • Menu: Features a variety of paninis, a ramen noodle bowl and a drunken noodle bowl.
  • Ordering: On Linear’s website; curbside pickup available with delivery coming soon.

When the dine-in shutdown happened, Linear Restaurant owner Todd Hoort knew a simple switch to takeout wasn’t going to work.

“Linear’s food was never built to be a takeaway style of dish, so we want to offer people that style of dish that would be good to go,” he said.

Ghost Kitchen To Go was born.

“It’s really something that we’ve always wanted to do and the opportunity was really just forced upon us,” Hoort said.

Tuesday’s reopening of Linear Restaurant won’t spell the end for the ghost restaurant.

“It’s not going to go away. It’s going to be here post-pandemic,” Hoort assured. “I think it’s going to be an option that’s going to be here for a while.”

Eventually, Hoort plans to let Ghost Kitchen To Go shine on its own by taking Linear Restaurant dishes off its menu, experimenting with more comfort food options and using Ghost Kitchen To Go exclusively for lunches.

“It gives us an opportunity do some different things that we normally wouldn’t do inside Linear,” he said.

Linear Restaurant will be open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and brunch Saturday and Sunday.

To help keep COVID-19 at bay, visitors to Linear Restaurant are asked to wear a mask when they walk in. Spaced out tables inside and outside the restaurant will serve about 70 guests instead of 135. Linear has also added sanitation stations in shared areas like the bathrooms and front doors where social distancing is difficult.


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