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How the Pandemic Has Given Rise to Virtual Restaurants in Chicago

These restaurateurs are hustling in the age of coronavirus

Instagram isn’t immune to the public health crisis: The halcyon days of scrolling through food porn have disappeared as indoor dining restrictions have kept diners at home. As many influencers have quieted their accounts, a corps of cooks and entrepreneurs in Chicago have seized the opportunity to use the platforms to introduce their pop-ups to a crop of new customers.

In the past, chefs like Jasmine Sheth may have used social media to generate awareness of their businesses. But now, the Instagram page for Sheth’s Tasting India — her Andersonville ghost kitchen — links to a Google document where its weekly menu can be viewed, and she uses the page to communicate directly with and take orders from customers. “The pandemic has changed everything,” she says. “Nothing is the same as it was before.”

“Online has really been a lifeline for a lot of businesses like mine,” Sheth continues. “At the same time, it’s not enough to advertise on social media. You need to nurture relationships within the industry.”

Sheth grew up in Mumbai and lived in New Jersey before moving to New York. She ended up in Chicago and worked at several Boka Restaurant Group venues, like GT Fish & Oyster and Momotaro. She’s not interested in fusion, unlike, say, Vermillion, the River North restaurant that meshes Indo and Latin flavors. At Tasting India, she focuses on specific regions of India with a menu that rotates weekly. That’s something the U.S. lacks.

“When I go to Indian restaurants here, it’s not the food I grew up with on a day-to-day basis, not the one I experienced when I traveled around the country visiting family. It certainly does not represent all of the regional cuisines and so many specialties that even Indians ourselves are sometimes not aware of,” she says.

Crucially, Tasting India makes high-end and regionally specific food a bit more accessible: “I want to make this cuisine accessible,” Sheth says. “When you take that high-end, fine dining approach, I feel to a certain degree that you have to give up on accessibility. Not everyone can afford a $150 prix fixe deal.

“I have to put more thought into if it’s something I want to do, but with Tasting India, accessibility and spreading awareness and knowledge is important. At the same time, I also want to break the stereotype of Indian food merely being a cheap $15.99 buffet. I don’t want to perpetuate that stereotype.”

Thus far, Sheth has been surprised by how well her Tasting India Instagram business has been received, as well as just how much there is to do when one turns from a traditional restaurant kitchen model to a one-woman-shop.

“I’ve gotten to know my customers — I know one person usually orders a certain quantity of something, another is allergic to nuts. I appreciate this very personal connection. I feel like in a larger operation, some of that personalization is lost for sure. I’m sharing my own personal stories, how I learned to cook it, how I experienced it growing up.”

While Sheth clearly believes this emerging model of selling food directly to customers has advantages — especially during an economic downturn and pandemic — she does hope that Tasting India will translate to a more traditional brick-and-mortar establishment one day. “For me, there’s joy in being a restaurant chef,” she says.

Creative latitude is a large part of what Sheth says she enjoys with her current setup. With many eaters more limited in their ability to move around, let alone travel, she hopes that Tasting India provides a rare pandemic opportunity to experience new locales: “I don’t have to cook the same dishes over and over,” she says.

“If you’re locked down, what better way to travel and explore different regions than by taking a virtual journey through a plate of food? That part is super exciting.”

“They know what’s hot”

Bianca’s Burgers signature item.
Bianca’s Burgers [Official Photo]

Whereas Sheth says she’s been able to forge a more personal connection with customers through Instagram, sibling owners Elizabeth and Rafael Royal of Bianca’s Burgers say they have less interaction with eaters working out of their Humboldt Park commercial kitchen than they did in restaurants and bars in the past.

“There’s a bunch of kitchens in here, yes. There’s a Chick-fil-A in here, but we are not Chick-fil-A,” Elizabeth Royal says. “There are other kitchens in here that are mom-and-pop places, like Mary’s, like Savor 27, that are not corporate — they’re being solely run by one or two people, like us. People don’t understand it. They’ll think we’re lying and post on Facebook [laughs]. I promise you, Bianca is a person and we don’t have a million dollars.”

The Royals still connect with customers despite the lack of facetime. They remember regular customers by their screen names and reach out to them individually whenever possible. A friend has helped them learn how to navigate and utilize social media, and young Chicago industry members in Chicago, whom the Royals gave a first job or trained in years past, have also helped spread the word about Bianca’s Burgers.

“They know what’s hot,” Elizabeth Royal says. “And they’ll tell their followers where to go and what to try. It’s the same thing with Bianca, my daughter. Bianca tells me what’s up. She’ll tell me, ‘No, you’re using this wrong. This is not right.’”

The pair wanted to open a traditional diner, but the pandemic pushed them toward the ghost kitchen route. Though the Royals say they save on overhead costs, it seems like they consider one of the main benefits of starting Bianca’s Burgers in this novel way the fact that they’ve been able to see what works and doesn’t, menu-wise, with a little less risk.

“It is expensive, but we don’t pay for gas, water, front-desk people, garbage, and we have licensing flexibility in that we have the ability to do pop-ups built-into our license,” Rafael Royal explains. His sister continues:

“It’s hard to find a lease in a good area, and by ‘good area’ I mean one with high traffic. We didn’t want to just jump into it, so we said, ‘Let’s test it, let’s see,’” she says. “For example, today we’re meeting to change the menu. With a storefront you have to have consistency.”

The ability to tinker with their menu in order to see what eaters respond to is important to the Royals, even though they had a pretty clear idea of what they wanted their concept to be from the start. Growing up with Panamanian food in their home, the siblings came to like and crave the Anglo-American diner food, like hamburgers, that they’d get during special meals out.

“Ideally, when Bianca gets bigger and moves out of here, it will be a diner. Because I love diners,” Rafael Royal says. “I love American street food. You know how Rick Bayless and all these chefs appropriate other countries’ foods? We’re going to appropriate American food.

“We’re not chefs, but we know how to run a place. We know how to make things tasty, we know how to engage people, but we’re not chefs. We asked ourselves, ‘What can we make that is really good? Burgers.’”

Quality is job No. 1

Henry Cai intended to open up a restaurant earlier this year before pandemic restrictions put that on pause. Instead, Cai launched 3 Little Pigs, one of Chicago’s most successful virtual restaurants. He specializes in Cantonese food, with pork fried rice, barbecue ribs, and more.

The big-ticket item is the scrumptious barbecue pork, which sells out about a month in advance. Cai takes orders every day for smaller items like fried rice and egg rolls with homemade shrimp chips and sweet and sour sauce. The nostalgia hits in different ways. Those who grew up with Chinese-American food will notice that the sauce is thinner than those found in those familiar little plastic packets. Cai says he doesn’t use fillers like cornstarch: “That would be cheating them.”

For Cai, the nostalgia comes from continuing his father’s work. He’s the man who introduced Cai to cooking and taught him the importance of fresh, hot food: “If I brought you something cold, you’d be like, ‘Oh man, fuck this guy,’” says Cai. “‘He don’t give a fuck about me. He don’t care about quality.’”

Cai works on a schedule that allows him to hand off his food to customers when it’s at its best, he says. That means customers direct-messaging him on Instagram and ordering their food hours in advance.

“The main thing with what I’m doing is I want to make sure the quality is there. That’s why I have to make people wait,” he says.

“There’s people who don’t understand that this isn’t a ‘restaurant-restaurant.’ You wait three hours for your food to pick it up. If you come at 10, and I’ve had this happen, where you come at 10 and I’m like, ‘We’re going to have to reschedule.’ And he’s like, ‘I’ll take the food cold.’ I can’t do that.”

Henry Cai is creative with a Chinese spin on the pork chop sandwich.
Courtesy of Henry Cai

Similar to Sheth, who wants to address cultural stereotypes that relate to India, Cai wants to do his part to demonstrate qualitative substance in Chinese cuisine. “Chinese food is perceived as the cheaper food of Asia,” he says.

Cai says that he’s currently only offering about 10 percent of what he wants to eventually serve in his Hong Kong-style cafe. Rolling out an expansive menu while still being a one-man shop isn’t wise if quality is paramount, according to the cook.

Commercial kitchens may be cost-prohibitive for him at this point, given how much time he puts into his from-scratch sauces and barbecue. Cai works out of a friend’s kitchen: “I did the math,” he says.

“You pay a certain amount, cheapest I saw was $21 an hour. I need a lot of hours just to prep. Making the sauce from scratch takes a long time. I did the math and it’s the same thing as paying three or four grand a month for rent.”

Its barbecue pork may sell out weeks in advance, but Cai says he won’t consider 3 Little Pigs actually open for business until he has his brick-and-mortar cafe. “We have to play it by ear with COVID,” he says.

Just try it

With so much uncertainty in the restaurant world, businesses like Cai’s have to balance ambition and extensive planning with wait-and-see attitudes. It can’t be easy, but the hope of owners of operations like Tasting India, Bianca’s Burgers, and 3 Little Pigs seems to be that they can carve out a way to stay creative, save money, and grow their reputations during the pandemic.

Cai still can’t share about 90 percent of the food he’s dreamed of sharing with Chicago since his childhood, and he doesn’t yet know when his concept will get a roof and become a proper “place.” For the time being, doing a few things his way and convincing one customer at a time has to do.

“I just want people to try my food,” he says. “Even if someone doesn’t like it, I want them to at least try it.”

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