Necessity is the mother of invention, and for better or worse 2020 created plenty of both in the restaurant world. As is so often the case, this scrappy industry responded with workable solutions in overcoming the myriad dining-out roadblocks erected over the last year.
One of the more ingenious pandemic hacks has been the shared kitchen. While not a new idea, the practice of two (or more) restaurants with unique menus sharing one kitchen was adopted like never before as a way to cut costs and streamline operations amid belt-tightening times.
One of the more extreme examples is SAGA Kitchen. Located on Lincoln Avenue in Alameda, the space functions effectively as four different Asian-themed restaurants in one storefront: Koharu (Japanese), Yue Club (dim sum), Wok Chi (Chinese), and coming soon, Sachi (sushi).
Says Gilbert Liang, one of SAGA’s founders, the concept came together when the COVID-19 crisis crashed his and his partners’ plans to open up a traditional stand-alone sushi restaurant. The longtime industry vets had heard from several other prospective restaurateurs who were in the same boat when they had “a lightbulb moment.” Why not combine all the resources, networks, and knowledge under the same single umbrella operation?
“A couple of days after talking about it, I found this space in Alameda,” recalls Liang. “I was skeptical at first, but then I took a look at the kitchen and it was huge, and the space was in this prime area in the middle of Alameda. So, we decided [to] get some of these guys in here who want to cook food—because we can support at least three to four concepts.”
How has the communal approach worked in practice? Even better than expected, says Liang. By sharing not only the kitchen and rent but also other resources such as staffing, marketing, and accounting, the operation was breaking even just a couple of months after opening in October—a blink of the eye in restaurant terms. Liang was also pleasantly surprised to find that the symbiotic partnership has led to customers discovering and sampling dishes across multiple restaurants.
“A lot of the local customers were asking me if they could order from different menus from different concepts at the same time,” says Liang. “And it was like, sure, why not? Maybe someone wants dim sum and Japanese curry, or maybe sashimi and Mongolian beef.”
Most important was to ensure that everyone had sufficient cooking space, and that each concept was distinct enough so as not to cannibalize the business of the others. (“We didn’t want the chefs killing each other inside or outside of the kitchen,” Liang jokes.)
While SAGA started as strictly to-go and delivery, the partners are in the process of launching a front coffee shop open to the public—something that distinguishes it from virtual-only shared-space “ghost kitchens.”
“We found that these virtual-only kitchens are missing that personal touch,” says Liang. “This hybrid model is a way to have the advantages of being online but also be able to interact with the public directly.”
1707 Lincoln Ave., Alameda, sagakitchenscom.wordpress.com.
Check out these other examples of shared kitchens in the East Bay.
Bowl’d BBQ and Vons Chicken
Choose among Vons’s six unique styles of Korean fried chicken to pair with Bowl’d BBQ’s more comprehensive menu of Korean fare, including barbecue beef short ribs, bibimbap, and tofu stew. 4869 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, bowldbbq.com, vonschicken.com.
Cornology and Chalogy
Flavored popcorn, boba tea, and Thai pan-rolled ice cream make odd bedfellows in downtown Walnut Creek. 1349 Locust St., Walnut Creek, chalogy.com.
Rockin’ Crawfish and Spicy Joi’s Banh Mi and Lao Street Food
One nondescript storefront affords entry to two distinct menus: one centered on Vietnamese seafood boils, the other on banh mi sandwiches and Lao street food highlighted by outrageously delicious homemade sausages. 1847 Willow Pass Rd., Ste. D, Concord, therockincrawfish.com, spicyjoibanhmi.com.