Virtual Reality

Virtual Restaurants Are the Future of Food

Click Virtual Food Hall doesn't have any hosts, servers, or dining tables. And it—and other "ghost restaurants"—are taking off in Houston.

By Timothy Malcolm September 25, 2019 Published in the October 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

There’s no host, no servers, and no dining room tables inside the Rice Military space that houses new restaurants A&J Provisions, Bowling Club, and Sandwich Legend. Instead, all three are part of Click Virtual Food Hall, an operation that offers only delivery and takeout, opened in August by Houston industry vets Steven Salazar and Gabriel Medina.

While this type of venture is new to the Bayou City, virtual restaurants—also called “ghost restaurants”—are more common elsewhere, new additions to the ever-increasing roster of options offered by apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash, which have exploded in popularity in recent years as the hungry masses have realized that ordering in now means feasting on anything, not just your standard pizza and Chinese (although that, too).

Salazar has a degree in supply-chain management that could have led to a career at a place like Halliburton. Instead he opted to become a bartender, running the beverage program at Kata Robata before hopping to Anvil. Today he heads up the food and beverage program for the Kirby Group (Heights Bier Garten, Wooster’s Garden) in addition to partnering with longtime friend and former Kata co-worker Medina—recently chef de cuisine at now-shuttered Aqui—on Click.

The brains behind Click: Gabriel Medina and Steven Salazar

Image: Jenn Duncan

The Click building has 800 square feet of potential kitchen space across three rooms. While the team has plans to expand, as of August only one kitchen, with six-full time cooks and Medina at the helm, is in operation, producing menu items for all three concepts—A&J’s bistro and Italian comfort fare; Bowling Club’s Japanese cuisine and rice bowls; and Sandwich Legend’s (yup) sandwiches—with little of the usual overhead associated with running a restaurant.

Customers can either pick up their own food or wait approximately 45 minutes for it to arrive at their door after placing their orders via an app like Uber Eats or Click’s own website, While the team’s happy for the business either way, Houstonians who order directly from Click—or any eatery set up to deliver its own food, for that matter—will be putting more money in the restaurateurs’ pockets by cutting out the middleman: As the New York Times explained in a recent story, the big apps take a 15 to 30 percent commission on orders.

The Click team is also in the process of developing its own app, with the hope that customers who’ve gotten used to the ones currently dominating the market might be persuaded to download something new if it’s local and offers an enhanced experience. “We’re up against a really big company that spent $100 million in marketing over the past 12 months,” Salazar says of Uber Eats. “Our advantage is, we’re locally owned and we’ve been in hospitality for 14, 15 years, and we’re thoughtful. We care a lot and we test a lot.”

Guests can order from a touch screen at the front desk.

Image: Jenn Duncan

On a recent evening, a few weeks after Click opened up shop, my wife and I visited and tried it out. The process itself was straightforward enough, and it was neat to access so many different options in one place. We were told delivery would take 45 minutes maximum, and 42 minutes after we checked out, a driver arrived at our door with a large, insulated shopping bag full of hot food.

With two small children, it’s always an adventure going out for dinner at a restaurant, so we were happy to be ordering in. A&J’s bucatini carbonara—with shaved maple bacon, capers, tomatoes, parmesan, and, believe it or not, a perfectly poached egg—was still fresh. Bowling Club’s paneer coconut kale, meanwhile, boasted still-fluffy sushi rice and good heat. 

The next time we ordered in, the driver ran about 10 minutes behind the expected 45-minute delivery time, but she texted to let us know. Whether it was for our trouble or for another reason, Click threw a $5 gift card to A&J into the bag, which we appreciated. We had to wait another 15 minutes to eat, as we were hustling to put our daughters to bed, but the food was still warm after we opened the bag.

Insulated bags keep the food fresh.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Bowling Club’s kaisendon—salmon sashimi with cucumber, edamame, green onion, and sushi rice—was fresh and delicious. But the big winner was Sandwich Legend’s fried fish sandwich. It was smartly constructed: The baguette slices with mayo, cabbage, and clam sauce were laid out open-faced in one container, while the crispy cod came in another box; there was also a small container of lemon vinaigrette. When we put it all together, the result was dynamite. Also terrific was a homemade Mexican-spiced almond chocolate milk—the bottle came with a recommendation for a tequila-based cocktail, a nice touch—from Click’s ancillary menu of homemade beverages, all created by Salazar.

Click’s ingredients are high-quality, fresh, and, where possible, local—think cheese from Houston Dairymaids and pasta from Ben McPherson of Bravery Chef Hall’s BOH Pasta & Pizza. In the future the team hopes to partner with a local ranch, like Black Hill, along with area farms.

Entrées generally cost between $8 and $15, and customers can add a tip upon checkout. Assuming they order from Click directly, a portion of each sale goes to its drivers, who receive special training before hitting the road. Salazar says the company employs one fulltime driver and plans to have its own fleet someday, but until then it's contracting additional drivers through a third-party service.

Considering that the prices are in line with those at most restaurants in the city, Click offers a viable alternative to going out, and certainly rivals any take-out or delivery option out there. And what separates it from other methods of delivery is the personalized service—a point of pride for the team. “You’re getting the first-class experience from us,” says Salazar. “When people get delivery, anyone who is the type of person who notices the experience, they’re just going to notice we’re better.”

From left: bucatini from A&J Provisions, paneer coconut kale from Bowling Club, and the fried fish sandwich from Sandwich Legend

Image: Jenn Duncan

Both self-proclaimed nerds, Salazar and Medina have big dreams. The two love to pore over data, including customer ordering habits and delivery locations—Click’s seven-mile service radius includes Spring Branch, the Northside, the Greater East End, and the Med Center—as they seek to improve their business and plot their next moves.

“Oh, there will be a Click in Dallas,” says Salazar, who’s already scouting out the area. Meanwhile, say the two entrepreneurs notice one of the concepts in particular has a large customer base concentrated in one community. That data may tell them that area wants more—to pick one example—sandwiches. “We have proof of concept with a concept, and now we can take that and go brick-and-mortar,” Salazar continues, getting excited. “We could open a sandwich shop at NRG Stadium or the airport or the Galleria.”

There are other things in the immediate works. By the time this issue of Houstonia prints, the team hopes to have added 7,000 Islands, a regional-Filipino concept, to the Click roster. After that they’ll likely add a taqueria. Other ideas percolating include Greedy’s Kitchen, spotlighting decadent late-night and stoner grub; Macro Bowls, featuring healthy bowls for fitness enthusiasts; party trays and small-event catering; and a test kitchen for trying out future concepts. Salazar wants to have nine ghost restaurants running simultaneously, all run by Medina and a growing team of cooks, at which point he’ll have renovated the back rooms of the building to fit them all.

But first Click needs to grow. Business, per Salazar, has steadily increased since the launch, but the team is still trying to get the word out. In addition to featuring on established order-and-delivery platforms while developing their own app, Salazar and Medina have been taking a grassroots approach, passing out fliers for their website and signing up to appear at festivals and farmers markets. The partners hope Houstonians think local—and think of their delicious chef-driven food—when dinnertime arrives and they start searching their smartphones.

“It’s all about just being an option for people,” said Salazar. “And most important, the highest-quality, most consistent option.”

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