At the start of 2020, Spring Valley, Calif-.based barbecue restaurant Cali Comfort BBQ was a 5,700-square-foot restaurant with a focus on full-service dining and hosting events and podcasts. By the beginning of 2022, they will be transformed into a master smokehouse and media center, with a commissary attached to eight smokers that will each serve ghost kitchens throughout San Diego County.
Much of the transformation has happened during and in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, which accelerated the demand for digital convenience.
“Technology is enabling restaurants to do things we’ve never done before like opening up a ghost kitchen in San Diego that will cost less than $100,000 to build, that for a brick and mortar I’d have to shell out $1-2 million,” Shawn Walchef told Restaurant Hospitality. “That 5,000 square-foot restaurant that realtors are trying to sell me won’t happen but if you convert it into five 1,000 square foot ghost kitchens it will be way more profitable.”
At the start of the pandemic, Walchef – who founded Cali Comfort BBQ 13 years ago — had to make the tough decision to lay off more than half of his staff when California went into lockdown. Then they went into digital transformation mode: adding more third-party delivery partnerships (while adding on Otter to integrate everything), and switching from the Aloha to Toast point of sales system to better handle the increase in off-premise demand.
Once Cali Comfort went from 70% in-house dining to digital-only sales, Walchef made further tough decisions with the help of a Restaurant Accounting Services partner, like trimming his menu down to what they’re really known for: barbecue. By ditching entire food categories like breakfast and burgers, they were able to cut food costs by 5%.
But the biggest transformation is yet to come. By the end of 2021, Walchef expects to begin construction on converting 60% of his restaurant into a “spoke and wheel” commissary and smokehouse, with a significantly reduced dining room size, and eight smokers doling out Cali Comfort BBQ and future concepts from the “spokes” to virtual restaurants that will be opening across the county. With this transformation, Walchef said they will be able to expand their coverage area without resorting to building more restaurants.
“If we’re going all-in on digital then we have to be different,” he said. “Even if we’re as good as Aaron Franklin’s barbecue, we can’t make someone drive 45 minutes to get to us.”
While they will continue to operate as normal as construction is going on, the redesign will not be finished until early 2022. In the new smokehouse, Walchef said the restaurant will be able to seat 100 people instead of 250 people, and they will also use their new space to record podcasts (which they began doing in 2017), produce videos, and host barbecue classes and livestreaming events.
The main smokehouse will be used as the hub to provide food for what Walchef is calling his 10 “friendly ghost kitchens” which will begin opening in 2021, with the first location set to open on Boston Ave. in San Diego in mid-February and two more to follow by the end of the year. Each ghost kitchen will operate multiple brands besides Cali BBQ based on the needs of the surrounding community. For example, the first location will also host a wings concept and another virtual venue to be determined.
“The only way a ghost survives is by listening and responding to community,” he said. “We know it won’t work unless we’re community based.”
The main smokehouse will be where employees will prepare food all day on-site: they will be constantly smoking meat and delivering out to the ghost kitchen “spokes” all day. They will be announcing more ghost kitchen partnerships as the year goes on.
The final ingredient of this multipronged brand transformation is how to bring their employees back. While they may not need as many servers or hosts as they once did back in pre-pandemic days, there will be a major need for customer service-heavy hybrid positions at Cali Comfort BBQ. For example, Walchef’s manager’s new duties include taking care of customers digitally: when a customer fills out one of their “emoji” surveys detailing their experience in an emoticon and it’s negative, the manager will receive a text notification and be able to address the situation. Other cross-utilized jobs might include someone who delivers food, works as a barback and posts brand TikToks when they have the time and a creative idea.
“We want to provide better jobs where people are not just robots taking orders,” Walchef said. “We want to hire for hospitality.”
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]
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