Tony Donatell started out in the gas station business 12 years ago — well, an 6,000-square-foot Eagan gas station with a big kitchen.
“We had no idea what we were doing, but we had to figure it out in a hurry. We just learned as we went along, and I kind of fell in love with the restaurant business,” Donatell said.
Now, Donatell is the owner of Eyeswide Hospitality Group, which encompasses 11 kitchens throughout the Twin Cities metro and beyond. Tequila Butcher in Chanhassen, formerly the site of Applebee’s, is one of his latest ventures — the restaurant opened last December.
But Donatell is already switching it up for the winter with a new addition: a “ghost kitchen.”
The Cluckery, created and operated by Donatell’s group, opened Dec. 14 and is serving up chicken sandwiches, tenders and sauces to-go. It’s the third addition to the restaurant — enter through a phone booth in the back and you’ll find Sockdollar, a speakeasy with a 14-page drink menu.
Donatell’s Savage restaurant Whiskey Inferno also opened its own ghost kitchen The Italian Butcher in November.
“We love opening restaurants, doing these creative things and building brands. We’re almost competing with ourselves to make kitchens that fit different tastes and occasions,” Donatell said.
The newspaper spoke with Donatell a few days after The Cluckery’s grand opening.
1. So, what is a ghost kitchen?
Ghost kitchens are often hidden — you order from a restaurant, but they’re actually hiding that they get their food from other places. But for us, it’s an additional menu, where we’re sharing kitchens. We’re using the term kind of loosely because we’re branding it and not hiding who we are.
Both kitchens and menus are running at the same time, so it’s a little messy back there, but it’s fun. We’re adding to our portfolio and operating alongside another one to give the community more food choices.
2. Why chicken? Why now?
You can see just by driving around what’s successful right now. Raising Cane’s has lines wrapped around the drive-thru. Same with Chick-Fil-A, they doubled their lines and they’re still backed out into the road. People want quick and easy meals for the whole family.
Part of the difficulty with take-out for (Tequila Butcher) is that we built it as a nice place to go for a date night, a special occasion, to go and get great food with a margarita. But it’s hard to think of Tequila as a take-out brand, and we almost don’t want them to. That’s another reason we’re doing this other kitchen next to it, that’s easy to bring home.
We’ve already had to hire for and bring people in from other restaurants. It’s only been three days, but it’s been really busy, which is a great sign. I think it’s here to stay, though we might pause it in the summer when we’re fully open with Tequila Butcher.
3. How have you been modifying the restaurant(s) under various restrictions?
It was hard to go to take-out for Tequila Butcher ... we’re in such a big building that’s meant for people dining in and eating on patios. Thankfully, we kind of built our restaurants for things like (outdoor dining). We have heated, covered patios everywhere, so it won’t be too bad out there.
We’re also not allowed to sell hard alcohol to-go in Minnesota, but we can do beer and wine, and then we’re selling cocktail kits. There’s instructions and all your ingredients, minus the hard liquor. Just put your own whiskey in there.
We’re doing what we can to keep jobs throughout this. We normally have a staff of 60 or 70, now we’re around 30. We’re trying our best to not lay off any of the culinary or management teams, so (The Cluckery) helped to increase sales, bring more food into the building and offer the community something we thought was missing. We try to offer something special ... and definitely don’t want to be the next chain restaurant.