A DC ghost food hall gives a glimpse of a post-pandemic restaurant future

By the third weekend of dining room closures, restaurateur Aaron Gordon was pulling 100% of sales compared to 2019 through delivery and takeout alone. That sparked the idea for Ghostline.

Part 5 of a 6-part series by Emma Liem Beckett, originally published in Restaurant Dive, November 2, 2020

When restaurateur Aaron Gordon’s two Washington, D.C., restaurants raked in 80% of sales the first weekend of dining room closures, he was convinced it was a fluke.

“I thought for sure we were going to be in big, big trouble and not even make it a couple of months. We opened just for delivery and takeout…. And before that time had only really done 10% or 15% of [sales through] delivery. I thought we’d be down by 70% or 80%,” Gordon said. “But with zero seats, we did this enormous number.”

He conflated the stellar demand for his off-premise business with goodwill from neighbors trying to be supportive through a tough time, and assumed sales would wane as generosity faded. But the following weekend sales climbed to 90% of what they were in 2019, and the weekend after that 100%, until the restaurants were operating at 105% of last year’s sales on delivery and takeout alone.

After about a month of these numbers, Gordon remembered a 6,000-square-foot restaurant space he had toured in Glover Park, a neighborhood near Georgetown, in November 2019. The brick-and-mortar unit used to be a bar, and at the time he decided the space, with a sprawling 2,000-square-foot outdoor patio, was too large for his needs. But seeing the property again in March got his wheels turning: what if he pulled out all of the booths, tables and chairs, and made the space one giant kitchen?

“Even then I felt that [the pandemic] was not gonna be three or four months. We were looking at two years, at a minimum, so I was already thinking out to 2022 and maybe even 2023,” Gordon said. “The heyday of the restaurant boom, of the last 15 years, has changed significantly… I wanted to combine a ghost kitchen idea with several chefs… doing several concepts under one roof would allow us to [leverage] economies of scale.”

Just over six months later, Ghostline — a ghost kitchen food hall featuring six restaurant vendors — was born.

“We believe that this is not the future of restaurants, but one of them,” Gordon said.

Leveraging economies of scale, delivery boom

It cost Gordon about $300,000 to build out more kitchen space in the old bar location, which now houses three cooking stations. If the brick-and-mortar unit had not already been a restaurant, he said the conversion would probably cost a couple of million dollars — a financial impossibility.

“We had a huge advantage,” Gordon said. “I think gone are the days that people spend $1 million, $2 million on a restaurant build-out, especially in these times. That was… key to the space, that it was largely built out.”