Two longtime friends are partnering up to bring two big-city dining trends — food halls and virtual kitchens — to Wichita.
Justin Neel with help from his friend, local businessman Luke Luttrell, is planning to open at least three Creative Kitchens food halls, including one on Rock Road within a year and one on Wichita’s west side after that.
But the first one, which should be ready by June, will be in Wichita State University’s Braeburn Square development, 4510 E. 19th St., which also has Fuzzy’s Taco Shop and Journey East Asia Grill. It’s taking over a 5,680 square-foot space that will include a tap room called Social Tap Drinkery, a pizza restaurant called Sungrano and a third restaurant concept, which the owners will announce soon.
Here’s how it will work: Social Tap Drinkery will anchor the space on the north side and will feature a bar with 52 taps that will dispense beer, wine and cocktails. There will be seating for about 85 inside with room for another 65 on an expansive, lake-facing back patio.
Social Tap won’t serve food, but visitors will be able to get food from two restaurants in the same building, which of which will have their own counters and their own menus. People can order food from their phones, from on-site kiosks or from cashiers at the counters, have a seat at Social Tap, then walk over and pick up their food when it’s ready. The two restaurants will also offer food to-go and for delivery.
Neel will repeat the concept on Rock Road except that Social Tap won’t be a part of it. They’ve already settled on a space, and it will be able to hold at least five different restaurant concepts. They’re working with real estate agents to find a spot on the west side.
A new-to-Wichita concept
The partners have been working on the ideal for at least three year, Neel said, but it’s taken a while to get investors to understand what they’re trying to do. Virtual kitchens, or ghost kitchens, have exploded across the country since COVID-19 started, are popular in larger cities and offer restaurateurs a chance to get their concepts launched without needing to make a large investment for a brick-and-mortar space. There are a few virtual kitchen in Wichita, including Tender Shack, a delivery-only chicken finger restaurant that operates out of
Carrabba’s at 3409 N. Rock Road.
Initially, the idea was to create a space that housed several virtual kitchens, but Neel said he learned that Wichita didn’t quite grasp the concept. He decided to add in the tap room, which won’t serve food, and to give each of the virtual restaurants its own signage and counter, so he can get the city used to the idea.
The concept he settled on is more like a food hall — another growing restaurant trend. One nearby example is the Mother Road Market in Tulsa, a giant building that is home to 11 different restaurant concepts, each with its own counter, as well as retail shopping kiosks and a massive outdoor patio. Visitors roam around and decide what they want to eat then find a seat anywhere in the building.
Neel, who spent 11 years working as a regional manager for Il Vicino in Wichita, said that virtual kitchens and food halls are good ways for aspiring restaurateurs to get started. His setup offers people who want to get into the restaurant business a 500 square-foot space that includes all their equipment, their own walk-in cooler, a point of sales system, utilities and dish washing. An aspiring restaurateur could get started with about $20,000 if he or she leases one of Neel’s spaces, he said, and they can choose a two-year lease.
“Restaurateurs most the time don’t have access to half a million dollars to open up a restaurant,” he said. “What I wanted was to bring in a way they can come in at a less financial risk and see if the project they want can even be sustainable.”
Once all three Creative Kitchens spaces are up and running, Neel said, he envisions his tenants being a mix of startups and already established restaurateurs who want to get their food into different parts of the city.
Fire pits and garage doors
The inside of the space at Braeburn Square will have many unique features, Neel said.
Luttrell, who also owns Next LED, plans to install a 196-inch LED wall that can show Wichita State basketball games or other big games featuring Kansas teams. The space also have fire pits outside and a big fireplace inside. And the east-facing wall features several retractable garage doors that lead out to the patio and can remain open during nice weather.
The Social Tap section of the business will feature a large keg room that will be the centerpiece of the space and walkways that connect the bar area two restaurant concepts. The beer selection will feature both regional and national brands, and Neel is working with his liquor distributor to develop a few kegged cocktails.
The partners envision the new business as a place where people can hang out and be social, which many people are craving after the past year.
“The ultimate goal to this is a place where every single person who walks int the door feels comfortable and can find something they like, and that goes from the decor to the beer to the music to everything,” Neel said. “I don’t want anyone to ever feel uncomfortable, like this is a beer snob place.”