Fernando Saralegui has spent plenty of time in the restaurant business, which is exactly why Papi’s Kitchen, one of Austin’s first delivery-only restaurants, isn’t exactly traditional.
The Cuban native, who grew up outside New York City, studied theater set design in college and dabbled in documentaries. “Working in restaurants was supposed to be the means to the end, but then it became the thing,” he says. He worked with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Keith McNally in New York City before opening two restaurants of his own in New York before moving to Austin in the early 2000s.
Saralegui, a former director of the now-defunct Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, wrote a cookbook in 2003 called “Our Latin Table” and in 2004, he cooked a Cuban-inspired Thanksgiving at the James Beard House. A few years ago, however, after a break from cooking for a living, he didn’t want to get back into the industry with a big team of investors, so he started considering other options and decided to open the Cuban-themed Papi’s Kitchen, which sells Cubanos and other sandwiches, tacos, burritos and classic Cuban rice and black beans.
“(Virtual restaurants) have always existed, but in different guises,” Saralegui says. Pizza and sandwich shops, even some Chinese restaurants, might have a few seats in a lobby, but for the most part, those restaurants aren’t expecting to serve most of their customers in house.
With low overhead, you can sell a lot of food from a small kitchen, without having to wait until a table finishes to seat a new round of customers. “The price of entry is significantly cheaper, cheaper than a food truck,” he says. You can try new concepts and pivot quickly on those ideas based on customer feedback, or you could even operate multiple concepts out of the same commissary kitchen, but with different branding and websites.
But virtual restaurants, which have opened in cities across the country in the past few years, are a double-edged sword, he says. Marketing a restaurant without walls can be a challenge because people can’t drive by and see a “Now Open” sign or meet there with friends for a bite to eat, but what he misses the most is walking through the dining room and soaking up the convivial atmosphere.
“I’m a social animal, and it’s a little hard to not be in the front lines.”
Rising restaurant costs make this model appealing to both newbies, like the guys behind The Falafel Guys, who work out of the same kitchen space as Papi’s Kitchen and only sell through UberEats, and veterans, such as Saralegui and Rebecca Meeker, the former Josephine House chef who just launched her own prepared meal delivery company.
He’s only a few weeks into operation, but he’s gaining as much feedback as possible to help him make decisions about where to take the business next. A brick-and-mortar restaurant isn’t out of the question, but Saralegui is happy to be exploring a new path he hasn’t already been down before. To reach new customers, he spends a lot of time on social media to interact with the Austin food community, and he wants to host pop-up events or farmers’ markets to interact directly with diners.
“This project is not a ghost,” he says in reference to the term “ghost restaurant,” which has been used to describe this kind of business. “This is me and my place, and I want to bring as much me to it as possible. I want to give the food integrity and the story behind it.”
You can currently order through UberEats, GrubHub and papiskitchen.com, and he’s open from 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 6 p.m. to midnight on Thursdays and 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.