Ahead of the Curve and Straight to Your Couch

PuritanKung Pao Cauliflower. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Puritan Trading Company brings Puritan & Co. to the cutting edge

Call it the Amazon or Netflix scenario—translated into the food industry.

That’s how Will Gilson, chef-owner of Puritan & Company in Inman Square, describes the drive behind launching Puritan Trading Company, his new, delivery-only ghost restaurant.

“We didn’t think our menu here would translate well into the growing sector of folks that are really trying to get any food they want in the city, any time, on demand,” he says of Puritan & Co., an acclaimed sit-in restaurant.

“We didn’t want to be standing here a year from now with sort of our hands in our pockets wondering what was going to happen,” Gilson says. “So we wanted to take the advantage of coming up with foods that we knew would travel well, taste good, and be fun and different.”

Gilson is as big a name as they come in the Cambridge culinary landscape. He grew up on his family’s farm in Groton, Mass. and is now in his fifth year leading Puritan. He’s been the subject of “Best of” lists and pieces in publications from Bon Appétit to the Boston Globe, making his name at ventures like Garden in the Cellar and the family farm/restaurant Herb Lyceum.

In February, Puritan began delivering out of converted extra space in its Inman Square location. The new ghost restaurant uses the online platform Caviar—chosen for its eye-teasing presentations of restaurants’ offerings—to deliver plates for a specialized menu of East Asian-inspired dishes and fried chicken.

The unusual pairing grew out of customer demand, according to Gilson.

“Many of the things on there are more Asian-inspired, and that isn’t the type of food you think of when you come and dine at Puritan & Company,” Gilson says. “We put a poll in the field and basically went on social media and asked folks what are the foods they like to eat when they’re ordering take out, and what foods don’t exist when they want to get takeout in Boston.”

“We did a kind of mash up of [high-quality Asian food and fried chicken] and created our menu,” he continues. “Then we tested out sending the menu to friends who would enjoy it, let [items] sit in the packaging for about an hour to see what things worked and what things didn’t, and from that we came up with a list of items that are really good.”

What they produced ranges from their most popular item—a Crispy Chicken Sandwich with pickles and aioli on a potato bun (an absolutely delicious must-have, we can tell you from firsthand experience)—to the Kung Pao Cauliflower fan favorite. The chicken sandwich arrives in a thoughtfully wrapped box, with an eye toward making sure what you eat on your couch looks and tastes as though it has just left the kitchen.

“This is a very different venture, trying to give people food in their homes,” Gilson says. “Once it leaves this door, it’s kind of out of my control—and that’s the scary part.”

There are many reasons for this new project, according to Gilson. Reconnecting with a talented former employee spurred talks with tech consultants about doing more marketing and exploring the power of data mining tastes across cities. The weather is a factor as well—the long, gray, raw-cold Boston winter is bad for a walk-in business model between December and February, and especially when area colleges are on break.

“For us, it was an exercise in figuring out like, if the world all of a sudden changes as far as how people dine, then we’re ready to do that instead of trying to play catch up,” Gilson says. “If we can use this platform to expand a bit more or to reach out to an audience that we wouldn’t otherwise get, it’s just as effective as a marketing campaign to get butts in seats—except it can’t sell alcohol,” he notes.

Cambridge, he observes, is seeing a lot of mom-and-pop neighborhood restaurants struggle, with incredible levels of competition—whether due to national acquisitions, a lack of vertical density, limited public transit, or the bottom-line challenge of running a restaurant in Massachusetts.

“In restaurants, it’s kind of the real estate adage of ‘location, location, location,’” Gilson says. “That used to be the case, and now it’s all those things and ‘How’s your social media campaign? How’s your marketing initiative? What do you do for discounts? How much money are you paying in Open Table fees?’ All those things can make or break businesses.”

“We always try to do things a little bit ahead of the curve, and then the curve sort of catches up with you, and by that time we’ve moved on,” he adds.

This story originally appeared in the Food, Glorious Food! issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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