LISTEN: Scene in San Diego Podcast – What's a Ghost Kitchen? Sam The Cooking Guy Explains This Pandemic Trend

Monica Garske, lead editor of NBC 7's The Scene, and Candice Woo, founding editor of Eater San Diego, talk about San Diego’s food scene in these times of COVID-19

On this episode of our Scene in San Diego podcast, we talk about a trend that has really picked up steam in our local food scene during the pandemic: ghost kitchens.

Ghost kitchens – also known as virtual or cloud kitchens – have grown a lot over the past few months as people change their dining habits to include more takeout and delivery. But, what exactly, is a ghost kitchen? Well, for one, there’s nothing spooky or haunted about this trend. We will break it all down for you.

To help us down this path is San Diego-based everyman cook, restaurateur and TV and YouTube personality, Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien, who has just launched a ghost kitchen of his own.

Sam The Cooking Guy’s latest project is located in Seaport Village, and it’s called Eats by Sam. He’s using the ghost kitchen model to get that business up and running, understanding that – at least for now and maybe even for much longer than we ever anticipated – food delivery is king.

The Emmy-winning cook also chats with us about how he’s running his other two San Diego restaurants – Not Not Tacos and Graze by Sam – in these challenging times.

Listen to Episode 9 Here:

What Is a Ghost Kitchen? How Does It Work?

A ghost kitchen – or cloud kitchen – is a professional, commercial kitchen set up to prepare delivery or pickup-only meals. A ghost kitchen has everything you need to make restaurant-quality meals but, in most cases, there’s no dining room attached to the operation.

The menu items out of that kitchen are then offered for delivery via popular third-party food delivery apps like GrubHub, UberEats, DoorDash, and Postmates. Those apps have a built-in base, so the menus have a good chance of being seen.

So, this model is like the restaurant kitchen without so much of the financial risks of fully staffing and operating the restaurant.

In today’s pandemic uncertainty, this model has become a viable business for some people – especially since COVID-era restrictions are still limiting indoor dining in San Diego County to 25% capacity.

In San Diego, ghost kitchens have been popping up during the pandemic, including one that opened this week in Seaport Village – Eats by Sam – which is located at the former site of Buster’s Beach House & Longboard Bar.

Our episode covers that project, plus two other ghost kitchens in San Diego.

Guest Interview: Sam 'The Cooking Guy' Zien, of Grain & Grit Collective (and His At-Home Kitchen)

TV and YouTube cooking personality-turned-restaurateur Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien joined the conversation on our Scene in San Diego podcast to talk about his Eats by Sam ghost kitchen.

Zien talked about what initially drew him to the Seaport Village site – and his vision for the space now and in the post-pandemic future. He dished on the menu at Eats by Sam which, for now, focuses on “Samburgers” and “Samwiches.”

Eats by Sam, a ghost kitchen concept at Seaport Village from Sam "The Cooking Guy" Zien and Grain & Grit Collective specializes in "Samwiches."

The nearly 2.3 million subscribers of his Sam the Cooking Guy YouTube channel will recognize some of the items, too, Zien said.

In addition to food delivery via popular apps, Zien said Eats by Sam will also feature a walk-up kiosk that patrons can use to order their food via touchless QR code. The spot will also offer a small outdoor area where patrons can eat their food.

Zien said the ghost kitchen trend is one of those small business pivots that just makes sense right now.

Eats by Sam, a ghost kitchen concept at Seaport Village from Sam "The Cooking Guy" Zien and Grain & Grit Collective, also offers "Samburgers" on its menu.

“You can be up and running within a few days. It’s a good idea; I really think that’s the way people are moving toward right now,” he explained. “Restaurants are never going away.”

He recognized that dining habits have changed over the course of the pandemic, so shifting and adapting to those changes – from a business standpoint – is crucial.

“The thinking has changed. It’s 7 months in – if it was a 1-month blip, I don’t know that that changes patterns and habits,” Zien said. “But 7 months – I looked the other day at people the other day wearing masks outside like they were wearing shoes – it’s just part of life now. People have adapted.”

He also talked about the restaurant world’s shift to takeout/delivery and more outdoor dining, and how he’s making it all work for his other San Diego eateries.

By the way, Zien’s newest cookbook, “Sam the Cooking Guy: Recipes with Intentional Leftovers,” comes out this November.

Monica Garske
Sam The Cooking Guy joins the conversation on NBC 7's Scene in San Diego podcast in October 2020.

Other Ghost Kitchens in San Diego: HotBox by Wiz and Tokyo Hot Chicken

Two other ghost kitchens up and running in San Diego are also backed by big names: HotBox by Wiz and Tokyo Hot Chicken.

HotBox by Wiz is a project from Grammy-nominated rapper, Wiz Khalifa. The initial rollout of the project spans six cities – San Diego; Los Angeles; Chicago; Denver; Houston; New York City. NextBite, a Denver-based company that creates delivery-only, on-demand food concepts help run the project.

The menu is available via all major food delivery apps and the menu – which recently debuted from the San Diego ghost kitchen location – includes dishes like barbecue burnt ends, chicken wings, and mac and cheese nuggets crusted with Hot Cheetos.

Courtesy of HotBox by Wiz
HotBox by Wiz is a ghost kitchen, delivery-only food concept headed up by rapper Wiz Khalifa. HotBox is in six cities only right now, including San Diego.

Meanwhile, Tokyo Hot Chicken is a ghost kitchen that’s exclusive to San Diego. This concept runs out of the kitchen at Ayesha Curry’s and celebrity Chef Michael Mina’s popular One Paseo restaurant, International Smoke.

Mina and his restaurant group, the MINA Group, are running Tokyo Hot Chicken as a delivery-only restaurant that relies on DoorDash to reach its customers. For now, delivery range is limited to within 6 miles of International Smoke.

The menu combines the classic Nashville specialty of hot chicken with Japanese-style fried chicken flavors. You can read all about Mina’s latest project here.

Courtesy of Tokyo Hot Chicken
Celebrity Chef Michael Mina's newest project is Tokyo Hot Chicken, a ghost or virtual kitchen that runs out of International Smoke in San Diego.

Listen/subscribe to the Scene in San Diego podcast to get the latest local lifestyle stories and news from our local food and drink scene. As we continue to adjust to life (back and forth, back and forth) in these times of the coronavirus pandemic, the way we enjoy our city has changed. We’ll keep you up to speed on how those changes impact the things you love to do in our city. Tap here to find Scene in San Diego wherever you listen to podcasts.

For more content from The Scene, visit this website. For more content from Eater San Diego, click here. And to read our collaboration content with Eater and The Scene every week, click here.

The Scene in San Diego Feat. Eater Podcast is hosted by NBC 7’s Monica Garske and Eater San Diego’s Candice Woo, and is produced by NBC 7’s Matthew Lewis.

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