San Diego, CA

Products Used
  • Toast POS
  • Online Ordering
  • Toast Delivery Services™
Cali BBQ's two-location ghost kitchen concept reaches a wide customer base across San Diego.

Customer Story

Cali BBQ Goes All In on Digital with Ghost Kitchens

Cali bbq

Cali BBQ in San Diego, CA uses technology to redefine hospitality and strengthen guest relationships through Toast online ordering.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused restaurants to redefine flexibility and adaptability. Hospitality thrives on human connection and shared experiences. So when safety measures restricted shared tables, shared plates, and shared spaces, embracing a new form of digital hospitality became a matter of survival.

Throughout the year, online ordering became the dominant driver of restaurant revenue — and while the world starts to reopen and on-premise dining gets more and more viable, online ordering is here to stay. This raises a fundamental question regarding the future of restaurants, even when the pandemic comes to an end. Is having a physical, dine-in location even necessary to building a successful restaurant brand? Or could the right combination of digital skills and delicious food be just as effective in fostering a community and reaching new audiences?

Testing out this theory is San Diego-based Cali BBQ, which serves slow-smoked BBQ plates, sandwiches, and cocktails to-go to customers across San Diego county. Cali BBQ operates out of one storefront and one shared ghost kitchen where 30 different restaurants cook and dispatch online orders and deliveries. Rather than invest in multiple storefronts, this allows owner Shawn Walchef the flexibility to more sustainably expand his customer reach.

Ghost kitchens, sometimes called cloud kitchens, dark kitchens, or virtual restaurants, are designed exclusively for online ordering and delivery. There is no front of house: just a kitchen, either shared or individual, with staff cooking excellent meals and a delivery crew distributing the food to hungry patrons at home or at work.

The financial benefits of a ghost kitchen are immense. Lower upfront spending, higher sales through catering towards takeout and delivery, and shared labor and equipment costs are all significant perks to this business model. But, he cautions, “Digital hospitality is not about reducing staff. Humans are the heart of technology,” said Walchef. “Hospitality is about developing a relationship.” 

In order to successfully execute his plan to get great BBQ to as many people in San Diego as possible, Walchef studied data from Yelp, Google, and third-party delivery companies to map out where, geographically, a ghost kitchen would be best positioned to service customers. Suddenly foot traffic and street aesthetics were nonfactors – proximity was the only concern.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for our guests,” said Walchef. “If they want to order online, let them order online. If they want to come to our brick-and-mortar location, they can do that as well.”

He knew that guests were already purposefully looking for their favorite brands on ordering apps  — in fact, according to Toast’s Guide to the Restaurant Guest, 86% of guests order online at least once a month. 

The Guide to the Restaurant Guest
700+ restaurant guests share how their expectations for dining have changed during COVID-19.

To bring his idea to life, Walchef uses Toast Online Ordering and Toast Delivery Services to offer a seamless ordering experience for his guests and to take control of his delivery tools, keeping costs down. 

 Shawn says that leaving prospective customers high and dry online is a mistake. “You have to take care of [guests] digitally the same way you do in the restaurant. There’s all this attention to detail in physical dining. But online, restaurants ignore their Yelp profile, Google profile, messages on Facebook or Instagram. Not being there is not taking care of people in your restaurant,” said Walchef. If guests don’t have the right information about your business, they’ll be unlikely to place an order.

To sustain momentum, the Cali BBQ team relies on social media to connect with guests. Shawn promotes Cali BBQ “always and often,” on Instagram, Facebook, and even TikTok, sharing mouth-watering pictures and promotions, and connecting with guests. “It’s less about checking a box,” explained Shawn. “It’s about sharing what you’re doing, being honest, and telling stories.”

Header image courtesy of Shawn Walchef, via @calibbq on Instagram.

For more information about how Toast can help your restaurant create a powerful online ordering experience, click below.

Toast Online Ordering
Learn how a better online ordering system can help you save time and grow revenue.