Nimbus Kitchen owners are clear-eyed about success
When it comes to running Nimbus Kitchen, nothing clouds Camilla Opperman’s or Samantha Slager’s vision, not even a pandemic.
The two opened the off-premises kitchen—a shared commissary—late last year on NYC’s Lower East Side. Since then, more than a few local operators have had the opportunity to test-run their restaurant and foodservice businesses without having to shell out a huge sum during the pandemic and challenged economy.
With Nimbus Kitchen, Opperman, 27, and Slager, 29, are creating a successful new business at a time when the industry and its customers are trying to figure out what the future of restaurant dining will look like.
Necessity’s the mother of invention
Opperman says she originally started Nimbus Kitchen out of personal need. She’d been working in foodservice since college, first running a late night snack shack, and then in supply chain operations, but she always knew her passion was in cooking and creating. By 2019, she’d planned to launch her own food business in New York, but the rents were just too high.
She tried to find licensed kitchen space where she could produce and distribute her food, but was disappointed with the options available.
“In a place like Manhattan, renting out a restaurant was really expensive, and building out my own kitchen was expensive as well,” she says. “I looked into working out of a ghost kitchen, but the operators I spoke to didn't have a footprint in Manhattan, and they were taking a percentage of sales. They too were expensive and required a minimum one-year lease. I was just starting out so that didn't feel like a particularly viable solution for me.”
She began to explore the idea of running her own shared-kitchen space, where several food businesses could start up and grow.
“I realized there were hundreds of businesses who’d gone through this process as well,” she says. “This was a massive pain point for everyone in the industry: affordable, flexible kitchen spaces are just really hard to find.”
A new kind of off-premises kitchen
She changed gears and decided to format Nimbus as a new kind of shared, off-premises kitchen instead of a food business. It would provide affordable and flexible infrastructure, where operators could choose to come in for a few hours at a time or book longer-term space.
Operators renting space at Nimbus would choose from prep-only stations that featured plug-in equipment, such as blenders and induction burners. They’d be priced at $20 an hour, with two-hour minimums.
She also made production kitchen spaces available. Outfitted with commercial under-hood equipment, these spaces cost $35 an hour, with four-hour minimums per shift.
Transparency is paramount
Wrapped up in the physical logistics of setting up the concept, Opperman needed someone to help her market the business to attract clients to rent the space. Enter Samantha Slager. A fashion industry branding consultant, she met Opperman for a ‘get-to-know-you’ coffee and ended up as Nimbus Kitchen’s co-founder.
Slager quickly had big plans for Nimbus, as well. It wouldn’t be your ordinary ghost kitchen—nameless and faceless, she explains.
“The problem with ghost or commissary kitchens is that they often don’t have a consumer-facing aspect to them. As someone who consumes delivery foods and eats catered foods at events, I understood there was no transparency about where the food was made. There wasn’t any opportunity for customers to interact at all. We thought it was important that people knew where their food was being made.”
Slager says the goal was to educate consumers on where their food was produced, ensure they knew it was a safe place, and that it was a place they could come into. “We wanted to bring to light what ghost and dark kitchens were.”
That’s good instinct: according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry report, 72% of adults say it’s important their delivery orders come from a location they can visit in person.
A change in direction
With the help of women angel investors, everything was on track. Nimbus was under renovation and getting ready for business.
Then the pandemic struck, and everything changed, including the target customers.
Today, Nimbus Kitchen is home to 20 different concepts made up of new startups and existing businesses. Opperman and Slager say their business is doing well in spite of, or maybe even because of, the pandemic.
“We’ve had a lot of businesses come to us because they lost their permanent spaces,” Opperman says. “They weren't able to negotiate with their landlords, and couldn’t continue their livelihoods. Nimbus has been a saving grace because it provides an affordable, classically equipped kitchen space where restaurateurs can continue their businesses.”
The pair is in negotiations on two or three more locations that will open this year. They plan to have 10 facilities up and running in New York City by 2023, and a national footprint of at least 50 facilities by 2025.
“The value for our New York Nimbus operators is that they could expand to San Francisco or Philadelphia or Denver, and know exactly what they’d be getting,” Opperman says. “They could test and scale in new markets in a really efficient way. That’s the ultimate goal for us.”
Even though there’s pent-up demand to return to restaurants, Slager believes the pandemic has accelerated the call for more shared kitchen space. People will still want carryout and delivery, and restaurants are discovering that a shared space is a great and fiscally savvy way to expand delivery, and test concepts and markets.
“It's definitely a treat to go into a restaurant, and I don't think that's going away, but there's going to be more efficient, economical solutions for delivery, and that whole industry is going to grow,” she says. It won’t take away from the dine-in experience, but customers will use it more and more.”