Covid-19 has flipped the business world on its head. Establishments across all fields were forced to close down shop —some seemingly for good. All due to shutdown orders passed across the nation in response to the deadly coronavirus.
When Covid-19 coverages were simply a blurb on the news, Dominican restauranteur, Juan Goris, owner of a New York City Mediterranean-themed eatery called Luxor NY, was taking meetings with local chefs and restaurant managers in an effort to revamp his business. One of those meetings was with Stephen Rodriguez, widely known on social media as Chef Papi, a Dominican chef who cut his teeth in the restaurant industry “pelando platanos and yucas” after school at his parents’ restaurant and went on to gain notoriety with his catering service, Chef Papi Grills. The two pros clicked almost instantly.
While they got to work on reimagining Luxor NY, the threat of the coronavirus became more prevalent. So they decided to switch gears and focus on how the business would survive if they were forced to shut their doors. Thus, the idea for the “ghost kitchen” restaurant eventually dubbed ChefPapiKitchens.com was born. Today, the staff of Chef Papi Kitchens is working around the clock behind the closed doors of Luxor NY. Preparing delicious meals and savory drinks made by expert mixologist, Eddie Hernandez. All are available by delivery or for pick-up in their local Inwood area of Washington Heights as well as the Bronx—with catering services available to parts of New Jersey and Long Island.
‘LLERO caught up with Chef Papi Kitchens partners Chef Papi and Juan Goris to chop it up about their experiences during the early days with Chef Papi Kitchens. How they’ve not only been able to survive but, also, thrive in the time of Covid-19. And how they’ve been helping out their community along the way as well.
‘LLERO: How were you guys able to scale up the platform under the current circumstances that we’re in with COVID-19?
Juan Goris: We had the time to plan it. When I met Chef Papi and Eddie, and we were doing the menu for Luxor, and the whole coronavirus news came out, proactively we started thinking about if everything gets shut down what we could do to stay in business. So, we utilized one of the best weapons out there right now, which is social media. We’re blessed to have Chef Papi in our team because he has a huge following, and people gravitate to his food and his style of cooking. We formed our own website instead of going the route of getting a company to deliver for us. We formed our own fleet, and people can go to the website and make their order.
‘LL: That’s interesting. Most restaurants go through like DoorDash or other delivery service platforms. Why did you go with your own delivery staff?
Chef Papi: Our idea was to put our menu on every single platform—Uber Eats, DoorDash, you name it—with four different menus. For the customer, it’s going to seem like there’s four new restaurants in their area. We’re going to increase our probability for people ordering. On day one, the tablets had not arrived, so the only platform that we had available for anyone to place an order was our Chef Papi Kitchen website. Orders just started flying in like, “What’s going on? This is amazing!” Basically, to this day, we have not fulfilled one single order through DoorDash or Uber Eats or GrubHub or any other platform. Every single cent that we’ve ever received in business has been completely on our own platform, and it’s amazing, because these [delivery services] are taking 30% from businesses.
‘LL: Give our readers a glimpse of what you’re cooking up at Chef Papi Kitchens.
CP: It’s essentially the first menu that I ever put together for Chef Papi Grills, just more enhanced now. It’s more crafted, more refined. I used to have tacos and stuff on my menu, and I had sandwiches, pasta and healthy stuff. So, I did exactly that. I separated it into four small different menus. I made a WaHi Jugos menu, which is salads and naturally squeezed juices. A nice sandwich menu—like these cool chopped cheese and cheese steak sandwiches and burgers and stuff. [There is also] a Dominican fusion menu called DeLoMio with Dominican sushi rolls and Dominican Pizza, mac and cheese, etc. Then, I did another concept—a Mexican concept called No Manches with tacos and quesadillas.
‘LL: You also have someone mixing up drinks. Tell us a bit about Eddie Hernandez and what he brings to the table.
CP: We have an amazing mixologist—the best in New York City in my book. Eddie has the best frozen drinks menu ever. We have mojitos and sangrias and margaritas and Henny coladas—all types of cool, handcrafted drinks.
‘LL: One thing that seems to be affecting, not just the restaurant business, but supermarkets as well, is the shortage of food supply. Has that impacted you at all?
CP: There have been things in the market that there have been shortages. Getting things from different places and different vendors and different distributors has been a challenge, but I’ve figured that out. I’ve made the right connections, so it’s just easier now. For the first few weeks, though, I was up at six in the morning every single day. I was shopping for food all morning long. Getting to the kitchen by noon to open up for the day, and I was here up until like 11 p.m., getting home at one in the morning, and getting four or five hours of sleep for the first month. Just in an effort to keeping enough in storage and making sure we had enough.
JG: Chef Papi is excellent when it comes to his inventory, so he could predict how much is going to be needed within a week span. It’s a lot more work, but it’s doable. It’s not affecting the way we service our customers.
‘LL: Has Chef Papi Kitchens faced any other obstacles stemming from the COVID-19 situation?
JG: Not having people in the restaurant is a big one. Being solely dependent on deliveries and pick-ups is something that is harming a lot of the restaurants around. But, the way that we were thinking was that, “If they shut down these businesses, what can we do to survive?” This is what we came up with, and it has worked out really well. It is something that we are going to continue to do even after Luxor has reopened. The cloud kitchen business is booming. It’s a multi-billion-dollar business that we want to be part of, so we’re going to continue with this idea even after Luxor opens up.
‘LL: What are your plans going forward for Chef Papi Kitchens when operating in this “new normal” that we’re living in now?
JG: The way that I’m planning it is that Luxor will open up and probably remain with the same people that I have on staff today. It’s a great group of individuals that are able to work in a really fast-paced environment. So, what I’m planning to do is get another kitchen to continue with the virtual cloud kitchen. It will be still associated with Luxor, but it will be in a different kitchen. The service will be the same, though.
CP: A lot of businesses thrive during times like these—it just depends on what market you’re in. We’re an essential business—people gotta eat. We were able to shift gears very quickly with the amazing team that we have, and we’re doing amazing. I’m already looking to expand to all the boroughs. This concept, because of the time that we’re in, is very convenient for the customer. They can’t go to a restaurant and sit down and have a meal like they normally would.
‘LL: When you watch the news these days, every coverage is about the pandemic. Specifically, when they talk to restaurant owners, some are highlighted for providing meals to first responders or workers that have been let go due to the crisis. Has your company been involved with projects like that?
CP: In the first two weeks we had already donated over 1500 meals to first responders. We were doing it all.
JG: Yes, we took on a pretty big project with the foundation of a company named Deerfield Foundation. I was in a meeting that the company was hosting. They brought up if anybody knew anybody working in the hospitals that needed meals. I said that I knew a few people within the Washington Heights area, and I also told them that I’m willing to partner up with them to offer a cheaper-rate meal to the first responders. We agreed they would give me part of what the meal costs, and then I will deliver the meal to the hospitals. We delivered meals for hospitals around the neighborhood and also hospitals in Long Island, Queens and Yonkers.
‘LL: What advice from a clients’ perspective, would you offer to people trying to order food online?
JG: I always use Google as my guide when I’m searching for restaurants around the area. My advice to people is not to be afraid to order from restaurants at this point. Search around the neighborhood and see who’s delivering and who’s providing pick-ups.
CP: I’ll just tell you what I do. Personally, my thing is that I love to try out new restaurants. I’m not a Yelper, but I will always go and look at the reviews on different platforms. To see if I find any consistency in the reviews. Whether they’re good or bad. Then decide whether or not I want to try them.
The only thing with me is that because I am a chef. When I try something from a different place, I can tell the quality of the food that I’m eating. I can tell so many things that other people are just not able to tell. If it doesn’t add up to what I’m paying for it, I just get really upset. I feel like whoever is running that business is just doing it for the money. The reason why we’re doing so well is because this is literally my passion. I live for people’s remarks, for their reactions to when they have my food. This is like you’re selling yourself—who you are and what your beliefs are. When people make bad food, or they take shortcuts, they just don’t give a shit.
‘LL: Any advice for people in the restaurant industry that are going through it because of the crisis?
CP: Same thing that I’ve been telling everyone for the past couple of years when I started pushing my brand on social media. People are drawn to authenticity…drawn to stories. People are drawn to things that are different  drawn to things that make you feel a certain way. And, if you’re not creating this, if you’re not communicating any of this stuff digitally, you’re just invisible.
JG: I’m really big with advising people who’ve been around in the Inwood area. There’s a bunch of restaurants right now that are closed. I call owners and speak to them about what I’m doing. I don’t believe in just eating by myself. My job here is to share my knowledge and provide an avenue to these restaurants that are closed for them to be able to reopen. With a smaller staff, but at least be able to employ people around the neighborhood. Also, [to] provide a service to the customer.
If your located in the Inwood area of Washington Heights, Bronx, New Jersey or Long Island visit ChefPapiKitchens.com and place your order today!