Moroccan-style shakshuka, French duck confit, and Southern fried chicken aren’t items typically found on the same restaurant menu. But for Dakota Soifer, chef-owner of 10-year-old Cafe Aion in Boulder, offering variety is a survival tactic right now.
In March, his Mediterranean restaurant, located in the Hill neighborhood adjacent to CU-Boulder, experienced an immediate drop in sales when the university announced a switch to remote learning for the spring and summer semesters. The cafe laid off eight out of its 12 employees and weathered the state-mandated in-person dining shutdown by introducing new takeout options—cook-at-home paella kits, built-for-sharing tapas meals, and Spanish wine packages—and eventually, reopening for dine-in service in late May.
With an expanded patio, Cafe Aion was able to bring in about 50 percent of its typical revenue by late summer, but Soifer knew a challenging cold-weather season lay ahead. “When August hit, we realized that CU really wasn’t going to return to normal and we weren’t going to see our regular fall business. We knew we had to continue down that path of pushing takeout and delivery,” he says.
That push came in the form of Brasserie Boulder, a takeout-only ghost kitchen featuring French specialities which operated out of Cafe Aion. The ghost concept (also known as a dark kitchen or virtual kitchen) refers to the booming business model of the moment: one that prepares food for pick up or delivery only, often functioning alongside or in addition to an existing restaurant’s regular menu.
By serving dishes like tender steak frites with garlic aïoli ($26) and mussels poached in white white, garlic, and butter ($19), Soifer hoped to satisfy cravings for comforting French bistro fare, which Boulder was suddenly lacking in the wake of the closure of longstanding bistro Brasserie Ten Ten, which shuttered in June. “We were thinking about food that’s missing in town that people might be interested in, that could be easily executed, and lend itself to traveling well in compostable and recyclable dishware. And it didn’t seem like a stretch for us to put out classic French food from our kitchen, given the current set of ingredients, skills, and techniques we are already employing at the cafe.”
Despite critics on social media who accused Soifer of profiting from the closure of Brasserie Ten Ten, Soifer says the ghost kitchen helped boost sales. Then, things went sideways again in September when a coronavirus outbreak in Boulder led Boulder County to enforce a stay-home-order for 18 to 22 year olds.
“No one wanted to come to our neighborhood to visit, dine, or do anything,” Soifer says. “Seating capacity is not the problem. People are just not coming to eat at Cafe Aion. I understand why. There’s a lot of options and I wouldn’t bring my date or my family to a place where all you hear about is an outbreak.”
In response to another 30 percent drop in revenue, Soifer hatched a second ghost kitchen called Lil Bub’s Family Meal. The concept, a nod to his six-month-old son’s nickname, features a menu of large-format dishes that serve four to six people; crispy fried chicken with buttery homemade biscuits ($52), braised beef lasagna ($48), and mac and cheese with smoked chicken and broccoli ($34) are a few of the hearty options.
Boulderites can still enjoy Cafe Aion’s dine-in menu of paellas and tagines, but Soifer hopes they’ll also consider ordering food for pick up or delivery from any or all of the three concepts. “I’m there every night with a few staff members who have stuck it out with us. We’re just there cooking different things. It’s kind of funny,” Soifer says. “You step back and look at the stove and there’s like three paellas and a duck confit. We’re prepping coq au vin and building lasagnas to go.”
Managing the ghost kitchen business model has been challenging, from keeping all three restaurants’ online ordering pages up to date on third-party delivery sites to figuring out how to pack dishes in to-go containers for seamless travel. “We’re not a large restaurant group or anything like that. I am the office staff, as well as the line cook, and the dishwasher. But it’s how we adapt and figure out how to move onwards,” Soifer says.
While the chef is excited to eventually welcome more guests into Cafe Aion’s dining room, he has enjoyed picking up fresh business skills and cooking different dishes. Soifer is also thankful for the Boulder community and all of Cafe Aion’s supporters, including Dave Query, owner and founder of Big Red F Restaurant Group, who encouraged the ghost kitchen pivots. “Having those mentors and people you can chat with when times are really hard is such a lifeline,” Soifer says. “None of us are making it work—or trying to—in a vacuum. At least in Boulder, there’s this really great community.”
Cafe Aion, Brasserie Boulder, and Lil Bub’s Family Meal are open Wednesday–Sunday, 3–9 p.m.; 1235 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder