Thomas Concannon, owner of the Old School Heros sandwich and pasta concept that is slated to open next month in Denver, was about to sign a lease on his first brick-and-mortar restaurant when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring.
A year later, he and wife/business partner, Jill Concannon, are preparing to open Old School Heros as a virtual brand for takeout and delivery only.
“We want to open a brick and mortar someday, but we, like many other restaurants out there, are dealing with the reality of a post-COVID world,” said Thomas Concannon. “With restaurants going out of business and lending institutions not willing to loan money to startup restaurants, we decided to go virtual.”
Old School Heros is one of several new delivery and takeout brands opening in a new ghost kitchen facility in Denver called ChefReady that is scheduled to open in April. Other tenants include McKinners Pizza, which has a single brick-and-mortar location in Littleton, Colo.; Let’s Get Loaded, a new loaded French fry concept from chef Max Feist, and others.
ChefReady joins an increasingly crowded field of commissary-style kitchen operators, including Kitchen United, Zuul, Nimbus Kitchens, Crave Hospitality and Reef, each with its own unique operating model.
Nili Malach Poynter, left, co-founder and president of ChefReady, said she will seek to distinguish her company from the pack with a chef-friendly approach, green business practices such as composting and solar power, and support services for fledgling entrepreneurs. The company is partnering with chef Jensen Cummings, a veteran restaurateur and host of the @BestServed podcast series, to offer menu and operations consulting for ChefReady tenants.
Poynter, an attorney and entrepreneur herself, having founded the Vinyl Interactive data science and marketing firm, grew up in Denver but has been living in the San Francisco area for several years. She said she’d seen several restaurateur friends have to close their restaurants amid rising costs even before the pandemic, and decided to offer a space that would allow culinary professionals to start or expand their own businesses without the overhead of a full-scale restaurant.
“We want to give aspiring chefs and restaurateurs an opportunity to be entrepreneurs and work for themselves, instead of working for the landlord,” she said.
The ChefReady space, which holds 10 kitchens each measuring about 250- to 300-square feet, is located in the Platt Park area of Denver, with easy access to nearby densely populated residential and commercial areas. ChefReady provides the technology that consolidates orders from third-party delivery services and displays them in the kitchens, and also provides the expediters to bring the orders from the kitchens to delivery drivers and takeout customers.
Poynter said ChefReady plans to eventually create a “virtual food hall” where customers will be able to order from multiple venues within the space and have them combined in a single delivery.
Tenants pay ChefReady a monthly rent, plus a fee per order to fund the services, and each pays their own utility and internet costs. Poynter declined to disclose the exact rental fees, saying they are negotiated individually with each tenant.
“Their success is really our success,” she said. “We want a good community of chefs that will be there for a long time and be successful.”
In addition to providing the ordering technology and order expediters, ChefReady outfits each kitchen with a 10-foot hood with a fire suppression system, and multiple sinks. The location includes shared storage space for frozen, fresh and shelf-stable inventory. Tenants, who have the exclusive use of their kitchens 24/7, supply their own cooking equipment.
Thomas Concannon, who worked in the industry at various restaurants for more than 30 years before launching Old School Heros, said he added a stove, an oven and a couple of deli slicers to his kitchen space at ChefReady.
“We think our type of concept is perfect for the virtual kitchen model because of its simplicity,” he said.
He said he was attracted to the space because of low start-up costs, as well as the reduced ongoing operating costs — “just back-of-house inventory, equipment and kitchen staff. That makes this model very appealing for a startup or experimental concept,” he said.
The Old School Heros menu, as currently posted online, will include hot and cold sandwiches, salads and pasta dishes, along with bagged chips and beverages. Selections lean toward New York deli-style, Italian-influenced fare such as a sausage and pepper sandwich, and a choice of meatball, chicken, veal or eggplant parmesan sandwich, as well as baked ziti, macaroni and cheese and other dishes.
Concannon said the menu was designed with portability in mind.
“We have lots of tricks that maximize for quality, like how all salads will have dressings on the side, but all our salads and pastas, including our Pickle of a Pasta Salad, Devil’s Own Potato Salad, Tommy C’s Classic Mac and Cheese and our baked ziti, will still be made from scratch using our family’s favorite recipes,” he said.
Old School Heros will use Boar’s Head meats and cheeses, bread from local purveyor City Bakery and chips from another local company, Boulder Chips.
Concannon said if the first location proves successful, he plans to expand into other ChefReady kitchens as that company expands, and eventually open brick-and-mortar locations “to fulfill our original Old School Heros dream.”