“It’s Like Airbnb for the Food Industry”

Need a kitchen for your business? Stick a Virtual Fork in it.

Cole Graham of Virtual Fork (photo by John Anderson)

It's hard to run a food business these days. It's never been a breeze, but lately, with the post-pandemic surge of staffing frustrations and supply chain problems? Would-be restaurateurs have to do whatever's necessary to survive. Dedicate themselves to ridiculous hours of labor. Maybe start with a food truck, partner up when possible, build a customer base before going brick-and-mortar. And if you don't have quite the cooking space and equipment required, maybe sign on with one of those ghost kitchens that have galvanized the scene. You know: whatever it takes. And maybe what it takes is a virtual fork. A – what now?

"It's like Airbnb for the food industry," says Cole Graham, co-founder of Virtual Fork (virtualfork.io). He's an affable young man with a smile and manner that could illustrate a Shutterstock category called Gung-Ho Startup Dudes. He and his business partner, Jacob Pielke, are staking their food service claim with a kitchen rental system that may function more easily and cheaply than ghost kitchens.

"Jacob and I have been working on this since we met in college," says Graham. "And in our last two years of school, there was COVID. We were living in L.A. at the time, and there were mom-and-pop restaurants that we thought were going to go out of business." The friends noticed that these restaurants somehow managed to survive because they explored new ways to operate, from delivering with friends to using ghost kitchens. 

Graham tells us that he and Pielke decided to get in the game, starting a delivery-only restaurant out of a bowling alley. "We were in the kitchen, building menus, going through everything it takes to be a first-time restaurateur – and making every mistake in the process," Graham explains. "So, with the challenges we ran into with staffing, and ingredients, and rent – we realized these weren't just issues for us, they were issues for everybody in the industry. We wanted to solve at least one of them, and we settled on rent." 

Virtual Fork connects restaurant kitchens with people who could use them, to the benefit of businesses whose kitchens aren't in operation 24/7, and to those who need access to commercial kitchens for pop-ups or for a multimonth relationship. 

So, just like you can put your guest room or she-shed on a short-term domestic rental site or rent out your car to tourists on Turo, restaurateurs can put their commercial kitchens on the Virtual Fork marketplace. The service launched on March 29 and already has more than 50 users. Kitchens available for rent include Shiner's Saloon and the UT-area bar Axis. The host kitchens set the rates, and the service makes its money from booking fees. 

"Austin is the perfect place to start a restaurant or a food business," says Graham. "Look at the food culture here – it's incredible! There are opportunities in the food scene here, and we wanted to be the connector between the mom-and-pop restaurant and the food truck or the new catering company that's looking for a spot."

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