Karen Nason and Chef David Robinson are planning to launch a “ghost kitchen” in Gorham in early December. Nason owns the business, and Robinson will manage the kitchen. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Six new restaurants will open simultaneously in Gorham next month, all operating out of the same kitchen, and without a single table.

The concept, called a ghost kitchen, involves setting up a restaurant-style kitchen but solely for takeout and delivery, usually touch-free. The spaces, often located away from downtown restaurant districts, are sometimes used by existing restaurants looking to experiment – a fine dining place trying to serve more casual food as a side gig without harming its core brand, for example. It can also be somewhere for chefs to try out different menu items while saving on rent and labor costs. Or, as with Ghost Karen’s Kitchens in Gorham, it can be a single kitchen making food from multiple menus that were never meant to touch a server’s hands.

The model has taken off in other parts of the country during the pandemic, with more people ordering takeout and delivery, and is showing signs it will have staying power. According to Technomic, a food service research group, sales from ghost kitchens in the United States are expected to rise 25 percent per year for the next five years.

A Portland Realtor is hoping to use a similar concept to temporarily fill an empty restaurant space that’s up for sale, but Karen Nason, who’s behind the Gorham project, is looking more long-term.

Nason, who owns Grand Central Wine Bar in Gorham, was planning to open a second location when the pandemic hit. With financial backing from Manhattan developer Roy Stillman, a longtime friend, they came up with a new plan.

The 5,000-square-foot ghost kitchen is in the former School Street Pub & Grill location at 29 School St. It will serve food from six takeout and delivery menus that offer everything from burgers and pizza to Thai and Mediterranean food. She’s hired David Robinson, formerly of Union at The Press Hotel in Portland, to manage the kitchen. Also on the payroll are chef Trent Seib, formerly of Via Vecchia in Portland, and Michael Lemieux, formerly of the Black Point Inn in Scarborough.

“There are no tables, there are no barstools,” Nason said. “You will never come into this restaurant, but I will bring an experience home to you every evening, if that’s what you choose.”

The menus all have their own names and concepts: Backyard Burger, My Thai, Mykonos Mediterranean, Brooklyn Benny’s (pizza), Soup Dogg and Bliss Bowl. Wine and spirits will also be available; all bottles of wine will cost $24, Nason said.

Chef Michael Lemieux, left, and David Robinson, the chef managing the kitchen, organize Ghost Karen’s Kitchen, at the former School Street Pub & Grill in Gorham. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Nason said she expects to deliver to Gorham, Westbrook, Old Orchard Beach, Scarborough, Standish and Portland. She’ll also partner with local and national delivery services, but plans to have her own fleet of delivery vehicles as well. For ultra-local deliveries, she’s purchased two electric bikes. Thermal lockers will be set up at Ghost Karen’s Kitchens and at the Husky Hideaway snack bar on the University of Southern Maine campus so that customers can get touchless delivery.

“It’s going to be something really unique and fun for the students,” said Tadd Stone, general manager of the Sodexo dining operation at the USM’s Gorham campus.

Two electric “eco bikes” will be used for deliveries close to the kitchen. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The school will get more out of the partnership than just flexible dining options. Nason plans to round up all purchases that students make using her business’ app and will donate the money to the school’s food pantry. And Stone said Nason has agreed to hire some of the USM staff members who are routinely laid off during holiday breaks.

Stone said, in a typical year, about 50 dining hall workers are laid off from Christmas to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January. This year, because of the pandemic, the campus is planning to go entirely online after Thanksgiving, he said, meaning the student population will shrink from 700-800 down to about 100. That means layoffs are happening earlier.

“As soon as we go to lay off our employees next week for Thanksgiving, I’m going to send a list down to Karen to see if she has work for them for the next two months,” Stone said.

Stone said not all laid-off employees will be looking for another job. He said the staff includes a lot of people who are at high risk for getting COVID-19 and look forward to spending the holidays safely at home with their families. But for those who want to work, Ghost Karen’s Kitchens could help keep them off unemployment.

“These guys are trained, seasoned workers,” Nason said. “Who wouldn’t want them?”

Chef Michael Lemieux works in the kitchen as the staff prepares for the opening of Ghost Karen’s Kitchens, at the former School Street Pub & Grill in Gorham. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Nason said she’s hoping to open the business in the first week in December.

Nason isn’t the only one pursuing the idea of a ghost kitchen in Maine. Tom Landry of Benchmark Real Estate owns the longtime Aurora Provisions space, most recently The Blue Spoon Cafe, at 64 Pine St. in Portland. He is offering the 2,000-square-foot space at half the usual rent to chefs who might want to share it and use it as a different kind of ghost kitchen to help them survive the winter.

Landry said chefs or restaurants would split the $3,000 per month rent and use the space “simultaneously and cooperatively.”

“Many of our restaurants are so small you can’t effectively social distance,” Landry said, “so could three or four of them say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go in it together. You’ve got it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, we’ve got it Thursday and Friday, and we rotate.’ ”

Landry noted that the location, which is for sale, comes with a parking lot and “one of the biggest walk-ins outside of the hospital in the city.” The rental agreement would be honored for six to eight months, he said. “It keeps their brand out there and keeps them surviving,” he said.

But Nason’s concept is meant to outlast the pandemic, and she is committed to growing it.

“We all pray our bars and restaurants are going to come back and come back strong,” she said. “But that won’t save me right now, and I like this format. I like the fact that people can have a choice now, and have an experience at home.”


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