Ghost kitchens, meal kits give restaurants life support during coronavirus

'I’m trying to do everything in my power to be able to pay some rent and be successful'

This family-owned Greek restaurant now serves Italian and Japanese food too.

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Three months ago, it was business as usual for Spiro Menegatos, the owner of Nerai, an upscale Greek restaurant in Manhattan’s midtown neighborhood. The restaurant catered private events and welcomed diners working at nearby offices.

Waitress Jill Lawrence, right, waits on customers at Shakers American Cafe in Orlando, Fla. Many Florida restaurants were allowed to open Monday with outdoor tables 6 feet apart and indoor seating at 25% capacity. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Then, the coronavirus pandemic forced dining rooms like his to close. But he still had staff and bills to pay, so he had to figure out a Plan B.

“I’m trying to do everything in my power to be able to pay some rent and be successful,” Menegatos told FOX Business on Friday.

Menegatos started selling fast-casual Greek food to go at Nerai. 

He’s spent more than $1,000 on personal protective equipment for his remaining staff and retrofitted his restaurant into a "ghost kitchen" operating in his former private dining room, which is now called Segreta Cucina Italian.

A delivery-only restaurant, it serves Italian comfort foods like chicken parm and penne a la vodka via third-party delivery services. He’s also partnering with Manhattan Japanese restaurant Kissaki for a separate satellite sushi delivery service that will open next week.

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“We never did a to-go business. We’re barely making ends meet, and this is without paying any overhead,” Menegatos said, adding that having no reopening date in sight for this dining room has made him question the future of his business and whether he can sustain it.

Penne a la vodka from Segreta Cucina Italian in New York City. 

Menegatos is one of the thousands of restaurant business owners contemplating how to survive the pandemic and the economic burdens it has created.

Restaurant owners across the country have invested in plexiglass partitions to separate diners from staff when paying for take-out as well as contactless pick-up and payment systems in the new normal of hospitality for those in states that are able to reopen. But some have questioned if it's even worth it.

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"It doesn't make sense for us to open our doors for dine-in. It's just not really 100 percent safe and the economics of opening at a limited capacity is pretty problematic," said Cheetie Kumar, owner of North Carolina's Garland Restaurant and Bar.

On a good day, we're lucky if we get 5 percent profit, and that's at full operation," she said. "That 50 percent is not feasible to make the numbers work, especially after being closed and limited in our operations for so long."

As an alternative, Kumar is launching a meal kit service, which she says is the most secure model until she can hire back 100 percent of her kitchen staff.

Internationally-known chef and restaurateur David Chang, who has 16 restaurants under the Momofuku group and a billionaire investor, announced earlier this week the closure of Nishi in New York City and CCDC in Washington because of the coronavirus, which forced him to lay off staff.

Chang has urged fellow restaurant owners to think ahead and consider what the future of functional dining is for eaters.

“Restaurants need to imagine that it’s not 2020 but 2035: What would your business look like in 15 years? What style of food and at what price point? What benefits would you want for your employees? We need to try and make this evolution happen now,” he tweeted earlier this week.

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Chang also stressed the need for a fund to help those who can’t afford personal protective equipment and aren’t getting enough government support.

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