Taco Joe’s: A Ghost Kitchen is Born

A western Pennsylvania restaurant looks to the future with a novel concept.
A soft-shell taco topped with tomatoes

How do you update an 83-year-old, fourth generation ice cream and burger operation to face what’s ahead in 2021? For Valley Dairy in western Pennsylvania, you launch a ghost kitchen featuring tacos.

It was a decision rooted in pandemic necessity, the future and growth opportunity. Even though Valley Dairy made a pre-pandemic push to utilize third-party delivery services, only 3% of business at Valley Dairy’s 11 restaurants was takeout.

Then came the COVID-19 shutdown, and all of the business became off-premise. Once the dining room opened at limited capacity, about 15% of takeout business remained. For the restaurant team and Gordon Food Service, that signaled an opportunity to shift some thinking.

“We’re known for our ice cream, but we sell breakfast, lunch and dinner too,” says owner Melissa Blystone. “We were joking  that my grandfather would be surprised that we were looking at tacos and ghost kitchens. On the flip side, he’d be so dang excited that we were doing everything we can to make money during these crazy times.”

A ghost kitchen emerges

So how did Valley Dairy get from ice cream to tacos? Blystone and Director of Operations Tom Webb reached out to Sales Representative Phoebe DiBello, who teamed up with Business Solutions Specialist Christine Morgan to create a checklist with stages of starting a ghost kitchen.

The checklist provided a step-by-step plan to create a business visible only to hungry people searching on third-party delivery platforms. It covered product development, brand development, creating a menu and devising a strategy for opening.

One goal was to create a small menu that utilized many products already on hand. Two ideas that emerged were burgers and tacos.

“You guys were pushing the tacos because not a lot of people in our area do tacos,” Webb says. “We thought we could stand out in that avenue and not poach from our Valley Dairy customer base.”

With that, Taco Joe’s was born. 

A ghost kitchen menu for today and beyond

Gordon Food Service Culinary Specialist Ralph Scurci helped create a menu that consists of three basic tacos—beef, pork and chicken—and specialty tacos that include a Nashville Hot Chicken Taco and a Boom Boom Pork Taco for those who like the heat. 

There also will be a Chipotle-like taco bowl, a made-to-travel deconstructed nacho platter that customers can build at home, and sides like beans, rice or cheese. And for dessert, there’s churros with caramel sauce.

The menu is completely different from the menu in the restaurant. The goal was to capture a different subset of customers Valley Dairy currently isn’t reaching,” Morgan says. “That lends itself well for now and for post-pandemic.”

It’s a plan Webb and Blystone think will work. When customers come back, they don’t want the ghost kitchen to vanish. “When we’re back open and running 100 percent, having the ghost kitchen, having our regular restaurant delivery, we can be over the top with sales,” Webb believes. “We definitely want to make this successful so it stays with us in the future.”

Creating a ghost kitchen footprint

For now, Taco Joe’s will operate only from the newest Valley Dairy location in Belle Vernon. The food will be assembled inside the restaurant’s kitchen and delivered to areas in a radius served by DoorDash or Uber Eats.

The prospects for success look good. When doing a search for tacos online, the only other restaurant that came up was Taco Bell. While it’s impossible for Valley Dairy to compete with a national chain’s advertising budget, the next step will be to market Taco Joe’s as a local alternative.

“Now that they have the concept, they need to work on building a social media presence, create an app and start marketing as a standalone restaurant,” DiBello says. “They need to work with their staff to build some organic following, potentially looking at some paid advertising to get a premiere listing as they lead up to their grand opening.”

The move to a ghost kitchen was accelerated by the pandemic, but a bigger off-premise footprint was likely approaching with changing consumer desires.

“We’re so operationally minded that we needed Gordon Food Service’s expertise on how to approach this,” Blystone says. “If everything works out great, Taco Joe’s will be at all 11 restaurants.”

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