After spending so much time in the restaurant business, Fernando Saralegui was ready for something that wasn’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, Calif., and Keith McNally in New York and opened 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 wanted to return to the industry but without a big team of investors. He started considering other options and decided to open Papi’s Kitchen, one of Austin’s first delivery-only restaurants, which serves 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 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, he says, 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 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.
Saralegui is 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. 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. 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 sell at a 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 Thursday and 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Red Poppy Festival returns with poppy seed-themed cooking contests
Georgetown’s Red Poppy Festival returns this month for the 18th year of celebrating the city’s signature flower, as well as its food, music and community. On April 28-30 at various areas around the square downtown, attendees will enjoy live music, a car show and parade, an art show and lots of food from local vendors. Admission to the festival is free, including Saturday night’s musical headliner Diamond Rio.
According to the city, Georgetown’s history with poppies dates back to World War I, when Henry Purl Compton (known as “Okra”), a corporal in the Army, sent poppy seeds to his mother in Georgetown from northern France. Residents have been sharing seeds and growing the flowers ever since, and in 1990, the town was certified by local residents and the Texas Legislature as the “Red Poppy Capital of Texas.”
The festival’s cooking and baking contest returns this year, and there’s still time to sign up to compete. Entries are due April 26, and the winners will be announced on that Saturday night before the Diamond Rio concert. There are two categories — sweet and savory — and you can find the application to participate at poppy.georgetown.org. All of the submissions must include poppy seeds, and last year’s winner was the Sweet Lemon Inn, which impressed the judges with these lemon poppy seed thumbprint cookies.
Lemon Curd Poppy Seed Thumbprints
2 cups butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Zest of 1 lemon
Store-bought or homemade lemon curd, for filling
Poppy seeds, for filling
Using a handheld mixer, cream butter in a large mixing bowl; gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, flour, salt and zest; mix well. Portion dough into 1-inch balls, and place 2 inches apart on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Indent centers with thumb, and chill for 1 hour. Once chilled, fill centers with lemon curd and sprinkle centers lightly with poppy seeds.
Bake at 400 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. Look for a light golden brown around the edges of the cookie and you will know it’s done. Cool on wire racks and store in airtight container.
— Sweet Lemon Inn