Sophie Bolich

Hustling Chef Building Virtual Empire From Downtown Food Hall

Kamal Shkoukani operates three concepts, and counting, at downtown's Paper Table.

By - Jan 9th, 2023 10:21 am
Kamal Shkoukani. Photo courtesy of Kamal Shkoukani

Kamal Shkoukani. Photo courtesy of Kamal Shkoukani

It’s been said that variety is the spice of life, but one local chef is on a mission to prove that it’s also the secret ingredient to success — at least at Paper Table.

In November 2022, Kamal Shkoukani hatched his first concept, Secret Hot Chicken, at the ghost kitchen-style food hall, 733-737 N. Milwaukee St.

Thanks in part to its social media buzz, the restaurant “got off to an explosive start,” according to Shkoukani. “We have a good following already behind us and a lot of support, so we’re doing well.”

But the chef and business owner didn’t stop there. The following month, he added two additional concepts to his collection, Evil Slice cake shop and soon-to-open Crooks Chicken & Waffles.

The new concepts didn’t quite match the fanfare of the hot chicken spot, Shkoukani said, but Evil Slice’s decadent, four-layer cakes, sourced via a partnership with Milwaukee Public Market‘s C. Adam’s Bakery, and brunch dishes from Crooks remain available to customers.

Shkoukani is already busy in the new year, with plans to debut at least two new concepts in the coming weeks, bringing his final total to five concepts — with still more to come — in just under three months.

Two upcoming concepts include Gym Bae, offering a health-conscious menu of ancient grain bowls, fresh vegetables, fruit and yogurt cups, and Moon Burger, which will offer a variety of elevated cheeseburgers and sides such as garlic truffle fries, cheese curds and onion rings.

“I think the real trick to succeeding with the ghost kitchen concept is it’s almost like running a full-service restaurant, but instead of having one big menu, you hyper-focus your menu into different brands to offer a unique experience with each one,” he said.

Shkoukani, who first took an interest in hot chicken while living in Los Angeles, got his start in the Milwaukee food scene by selling plates out of his home kitchen. When the demand became too much for his limited space, the chef turned to Paper Table as a starting point to grow his business.

“I think once I got into the kitchen and was dealing with all the delivery partners and kind of seeing how the business works from the inside, I just think it’s kind of necessary to offer variety,” he said. “My whole thought process behind it is, you know, let me offer a variety of things, so whenever someone’s in the mood for something different, we have something to offer them.”

All of Shkoukani’s restaurants are operated out of a single, approximately 250-square-foot commercial kitchen space within the food hall, which houses a host of other concepts including Blac Bistro, Blac Bistro Asian & Seafood, Taste of Life Soul FoodPoutine StopPo’Manz and Taqueria Zapopan.

The downtown food hall operates as a ghost kitchen with a delivery-focused model, making it an ideal incubator for startup restaurants. Most other vendors, with the exception of Blac Bistro, only operate one concept. In Shkoukani’s case, the chef leverages the low overhead costs of operating a ghost kitchen rather than a full-service restaurant, making it more feasible to operate several concepts at once.

In addition to overseeing his small fleet of restaurants, Shkoukani is active in the community as a photographer, a hobby he picked up as a way to pass the time after moving back to Milwaukee. His work has been featured in the Wisconsin Muslim Journal.

Shkoukani said that he hopes to officially open health-focused Gym Bae within the next week, in coordination with many customers’ new year’s resolutions.

Crook’s Chicken & Waffles, which will likely open weekends only, according to Shkoukani, is slated to launch by early February.

Moon Burger is expected to follow in short order.

Keep an eye on the Paper Table website or follow Gym Bae and Moon Burger on social media for more information and future updates.

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