Crystal Martin of Flint's Barbecue. (Gabe Meline/KQED)
For the past few months, Crystal Martin was on the verge of achieving a long-held dream. The granddaughter of the founder of Flint’s Barbecue, an iconic restaurant in the annals of Oakland barbecue, had been working to resurrect the family business—in one of the original Flint’s locations, on San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland, no less.
Now, Martin says she’s one step closer to achieving her goal, though perhaps not in the way she expected: This summer, Martin will open Flint’s as a takeout- and delivery-only restaurant that will be part of a new CloudKitchens ghost kitchen facility located in a big warehouse at 5325 Adeline Street, at the border of North Oakland and Emeryville. She just signed the lease this week.
The upshot is that, for the first time in more than a decade, customers both old and new will be able to get a hold of Flint’s Barbecue’s famous coarse-ground links, ribs and barbecue sauce on a regular basis.
The decision comes, in part, because Martin wasn’t able to secure the old San Pablo Avenue space after all. Her original plan was an ambitious one: The original Flint’s building has sat empty since the late ’90s, and its prospective buyer had told Martin that it needed upwards of $40,000 in construction work before she’d be able to move in. But then it seems the buyer had a change of heart, and now, Martin says, someone else is buying the building—someone who has other plans for the space.
It was a disappointment, Martin concedes. But she’d also already started looking into alternatives. “Something told me to prepare a plan B,” she says. “The dream was to go back to that San Pablo location, but you know, maybe that wasn’t meant for us.”
Of course, opening in a ghost kitchen isn’t necessarily the ideal. According to Martin, the yet-unnamed Adeline Street facility will be home to 40 different businesses, each of them with their own little kitchen space in the warehouse. There won’t be any seating for customers; there won’t even be any signage for Flint’s outside of the building—the number of other restaurants sharing the space makes that unfeasible. Customers will be able to order takeout in person, but a lot of the business will be filtered through delivery apps like DoorDash and Uber Eats. CloudKitchens, a company backed by Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick, is one of a number of so-called ghost kitchen, or virtual kitchen, companies that have expanded their operations during the pandemic—companies whose long-term impact on the restaurant industry remains very much an open question.
In Oakland, CloudKitchens already runs one big ghost kitchen facility, Oakland Food Hall, in East Oakland. It has yet to formally announce the North Oakland/Emeryville project, though Martin says her understanding is that construction is well under way. (KQED reached out to CloudKitchens to confirm the details of the new ghost kitchen, but had not received a response at time of publication.)
Nevertheless, Martin is excited about the prospect of being able to finally turn the new Flint’s into a full-fledged business after spending the past year only selling her barbecue once every few months. When she opens in the ghost kitchen space—tentatively around July 15, Martin says—she plans to be open Thursday through Sunday to start out, and then eventually six days a week.
“It’s a good starting place,” Martin says. She won’t have to take on the risk of signing a five- or 10-year lease right out of the gate, and she’ll be able to make sure the business is profitable and sustainable before making a larger commitment. “We do hope to someday have our own brick and mortar,” she says.
Meanwhile, Martin has raised a little over $7,000 toward opening her restaurant via a GoFundMe campaign—money she says she wound up using for the down payment on her CloudKitchens spot. She’s hoping supporters of the restaurant will still consider chipping in: She still needs to buy about $15,000 worth of equipment, including a new indoor smoker, before she can open for business.
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