Chef Franklin Becker, like a lot of chefs, had to earn a living as the pandemic took hold.
Becker, a New York-based Culinary Institute of America grad and Top Chef Masters alum who worked in Philadelphia a decade ago at the old Washington Square restaurant, is a consulting chef. He’s a concept guy in the red-hot, fast-casual restaurant space — not fast food, but cooked or finished to order.
Becker heard about CloudKitchens’ “ghost kitchens” opening in Philadelphia — which lease takeout- and delivery-focused kitchens for a relatively low start-up investment — “and I always loved my time spent in Philly, so I thought it was time to give it a go.”
“Philadelphians are very cultish in a good way,” he said. “When they support something, they support it full bore. And I felt that it was great.”
Becker is one of about 30 tenants in Fairfoods, one of two enormous ghost kitchens in Philadelphia owned by Los Angeles-based CloudKitchens. At Fairfoods, in the Mantua section, his kitchen neighbors include Fat Shack, Chank’s Grab-N-Go, Elevation Burger, Burger King, and Muscle Maker Grill — all seizing the food-delivery dollar. (You might ask: Why Elevation Burger and Burger King? Neither chain has a location in this part of town, which is a few minutes from the campuses of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.)
Becker, with help from his chef-friend Reggie Soang, opened two restaurant brands in a 300-square-foot room: One, called Benny Casanova’s, sells 10-inch Sicilian-style pizzas and arancini, while Shai is a hummusiya, selling Israeli-inspired dishes such as hummus, falafel, chickpea stew, and shawarma. They operate in tandem, Soang and helpers grilling, baking, frying, and boxing food for runners who carry the bags to the front door downstairs.
“It’s tight, but you know what? We designed it very efficiently,” Becker said. Though start-up costs are a fraction of those of a full-service restaurant, it’s still a noteworthy investment. Becker dropped about $96,000 on high-end equipment such as a PizzaMaster oven that pops out pizzas as well as pitas and arancini, and a high-tech mixer to make pizza and pita dough.
“We make everything from scratch and treat this like a regular kitchen in a lot of ways, even though it’s all going into a box and it’s all going to travel,” he said.
The Benny Casanova’s pizza, for example, kept its crispy-chewy qualities after a nearly one-hour car ride. “We actually chose to increase the hydration on our dough so that if it does have to be reheated when it gets to you, it’s not going to lose any of its integrity,” Becker said. “And if you reheat it the next day, it comes right back to life.” Truth, based on a sampling of three pizzas.