Even as the restaurant world reopens, consumers are sticking with their higher portion of delivery. That’s what keeps Park Tavern Executive Chef Colin Kohl boiling a big pot of water all day for delivery-only ramen even as the patio outside is “just bananas.”

Kohl joined Park Tavern, a restaurant, bar and bowling alley in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, in the middle of 2020 just before the second shutdown.

He came into an operation open to evolution, and ended up changing a lot of the recipes. The menu is now mostly scratch made and features some exciting new items that compete with the other polished casual restaurants in the trade area, while upscaling some of its classic, bowling-alley favorites.

That work was largely done when the second COVID-19 shutdown hit the restaurant hard. Kohl said the owner kept staff on even with the fiscal hit, but things got really boring.

“I found myself needing something else or I was going to lose my mind. I thought, ‘What about this ghost kitchen?'” said Kohl. “My sort of culinary brain steers southeastern Asian, that’s what I like to make the most. So, I was thinking about what I could do for a ghost kitchen that would make sense. There are no real ramen places near here.”

He said with ramen in mind, he and his small team started building the digital-only Pāku Ramen. Creating the food was easy, but everything else was a lot of work to figure out. Kohl said US Foods helped his team get ready, even offering up a web developer to assist. There was a lot of consulting with the food distributor, which had seen plenty of virtual restaurant operations come and go.

“They told me the ghost kitchens they see fail were not ready,” said Kohl.

To avoid that fate, Kohl dialed in the menu around simple but good ramen, fresh gyoza made every day, a simple pickle starter and some sticky wings. Because the virtual restaurant wasn’t exactly tied to rent and there were already cooks in the kitchen, he said he had a little extra leeway on ingredients and portions. That’s the beauty of truly incremental virtual operations, he said, operators can push their virtual menus a little further.

“The great thing about having Park Tavern. I don’t have to sacrifice on portion size or quality. If you look at the breakdown of revenue, the basic is 30 percent labor, 30 percent fixed costs, 30 percent food costs and 10 percent profit,” said Kohl. “But this is only food costs, so I can bring that up to 50 percent and now I’m still at 50 percent profit. The portion sizes are a lot bigger than you’d get other places and I’m using a fresh frozen noodle so it’s not dried—it’s great but it’s expensive.”

There wasn’t, however, much extra space in the back of the house. Kohl had to think about how busy the kitchen would be when things got back to normal. He essentially dedicated one burner for a pot of water, a drawer of ramen toppings and a small shelf packed with ingredients.

The order volatility was one thing he didn’t adequately prepare for.

“I just wanted to do six orders. If I’m doing that nothing is hitting the trash. We’re hitting all our margins and wer’e not tossing anything in the trash. But for a couple weeks we were absolutely getting crushed, my GM was worried I’d burn out,” recalled Kohl. “I readjusted my prep schedule to make twice the broth early in the week and then we didn’t sell any. So, I’m just pulling my hair out.”

As Minnesota ends its mask mandates and things get back to normal, Kohl said orders have reverted to what he originally projected with much more in-person business from Park Tavern. Pāku Ramen will get a little menu real estate and Park Tavern will feature dine-in ramen nights soon, as the virtual operation proved there was some real demand.

Kohl said that was one of the most interesting parts of creating Pāku, he could test and validate things without a big investment or risking the main restaurant’s reputation. He came away with a few other key tips for others looking to spin out a virtual brand as well:

Prepare to Pivot

“Be ready for it to constantly be evolving. You need open up the creative side of your brain, how can we reach people how can we be something people want do we want to be different? Do we want to do something better? Just be flexible and ready to take a complete U-turn if you have to.”

Get the Space Right

“One of the important thins is to be really comfortable with your space know what you can do with your space. Maybe get someone who has been in a kitchen to take you through it and say, ‘This idea won’t work because this space doesn’t fit.’ It’s hard for someone who isn’t from the foodservice world to understand that.”

Keep it Simple

“One thing I’ll steal from Gordon Ramsey: keep it simple, there’s no need to be Thomas Kelleher, you don’t need to reinvent anything. None of the recipes I’m using are mind blowing, the ramen I make is a very earthy, traditional ramen, the one thing I add is this whiskey barrel fish sauce that I put in the end. That sort of goes into navigating the space, the simpler it is, the easier it will be if you get really busy.”

Plan Obsessively

“Over plan. We thought we were ready. We even pushed back a couple weeks, but it was still like jumping out of a moving car. I would recommend doing test runs, which seems silly now.
Really logistically thinking about what you’re making, how it will travel, how you want people to eat it. I think that’s really important. We designed a card to show people how I intended it to be eaten.”