Wonder woman launches virtual food court in Jonesboro

Widowed mother of seven manages nearly 40 ghost-kitchen restaurants under one roof

Ping. Ping. Ping. The steady sound of high-pitched rings came from smart tablets lined up on the expediting station. Each ping signaled another takeout order. Lunchtime had arrived.

In only its fifth week in business, with a delivery radius of just 8 miles from its location on Southlake Parkway in Jonesboro — and without spending a dollar on marketing — VFC Kitchens already is doing brisk business.

Working in a 1,600-square-foot space that formerly was a Pizza Hut, a small staff prepares not only pizzas, but also burgers, burritos, wings, grilled cheese, fries of all kinds, tacos, truffle-flavored munchies and more.

ExploreAdventures in Food

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

VFC stands for Virtual Food Court. The brainchild of Conchitha Hargrove, the space houses 25 of her own ghost-kitchen restaurants, as well as 14 others from various partner companies that develop brands and menus, and then approach folks like Hargrove to execute food orders.

Each brand has its own menu (some with specialized to-go packaging), but all orders are prepared under the same roof, then either picked up by a third-party delivery service driver or by local customers.

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Busy days bring upward of 175 orders. The pings from those smart tablets are especially rapid-fire on weekends and late at night. Although VFC shuts down weekdays at 11 p.m., and 3 a.m. on weekends, the kitchen crew sometimes will arrive in the morning to find orders placed at 4, 5 and 6 a.m., prompting Hargrove to wonder, “Does anybody go to sleep?”

One tough cookie

Hargrove hasn’t taken a break since VFC’s July 30 debut, even though she’s the mother of seven kids, who range in age from 7 to 22. All but the eldest live at home. The children are the impetus for her wonder woman efforts; she is their sole provider.

Last December, Hargrove’s husband, Melvin Mitchell, suddenly died after suffering a brain aneurism. He was 41. The couple were high school sweethearts and had been married 21 years.

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

After Mitchell’s death, Hargrove took a couple of weeks off before returning to her job as a comptroller with food-service provider Aramark.

With a background in accounting, she was hired by the company in 2016, tasked with managing its $30 million contract with Atlanta Public Schools to feed students and staff at 84 of the school district’s educational sites. Later, she was reassigned as Aramark’s director of nutrition for Pike County Public Schools. With just six schools and fewer resources, she wore multiple hats — operator, comptroller, human resources manager. “I was a one-person show,” she said. “It was tough, but great experience.”

Tough times included figuring out how to feed Pike County students after COVID-19 struck. “We were prepping meals seven days a week and serving them two times a week,” she said of their efforts, which continued throughout the summer of 2020.

Everything changed Dec. 26, 2020, when her husband died without warning.

Hargrove, 43, isn’t one for self-pity. Faced with “a new reality,” she told herself, “I’m going to try to be superwoman and do it all.”

Where does such determination and conviction come from?

“I always planned my life,” Hargrove told me. She remembers telling her husband: “If you decide to walk off today or tomorrow, I will always be OK.”

Hargrove isn’t a stranger to overcoming challenges. The death of her grandmother years ago is what compelled the Connecticut native to seek a fresh start in Atlanta. “Moving here was probably one of the best things that could happen to me, career-wise,” she said.

Starting a family at a young age forced her to get good at scratch cooking, because the tight budget didn’t allow for eating out.

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

A sweet tooth inspired her to develop her baking skills, which she turned into something profitable by selling cakes, cookies and other sugary treats at flea markets.

That passion for food led to opening Etta V’s Restaurant and Bakery, named after her beloved grandmother. Hargrove operated the Decatur eatery from 2012 until 2015, when an armed robbery jolted her, as a mother, into seeking safer work conditions.

Working at Aramark enabled her to use both her accounting training and love of food. She credits Raymond Danilowicz, a district manager with Aramark, for teaching her about food costs and “menu engineering.”

VFC Kitchens is the culmination of everything she has learned. “What I did for Aramark, this is no different,” she said of her start-up business. “I’m just doing it for myself now, instead of someone else.”

The time is right

Hargrove attributes the early success of her business to advances in technology that happened to coincide with the pandemic. Younger customers, in particular, are driving revenue.

“Younger kids don’t care how much they are spending. They don’t want to go out and get it. They might order two cookies,” she said in wonderment.

She supposes that her Jonesboro location taps into a customer base hungry for variety. “Usually, you have to drive to Atlanta to get something different. With VFC, there’s something for everybody,” she said.

Yet, Hargrove also is tapping into something new, partnering with companies that peddle virtual celebrity restaurants. Their pitch to her: “How would you like to make extra money utilizing your kitchen?”

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

She’s happy to make tacos for George Lopez, burgers for YouTube personality MrBeast or truffle everything for Kim Kardashian’s BFF, Jonathan Cheban, under his Foodgod label. But. she won’t be fooled. Contracts are contracts; she reads the fine print.

She knows that third-party services take a deep cut out of the bottom line. It’s one reason why she is launching her own online ordering platform (virtualfoodcourt.io) in the next month. “Having to pay 30% just to be listed on their platform — that’s a lot,” she said. “Plus, they are charging the customer delivery and service fees. They are getting it from both ends. It’s hurtful for the restaurant and the customer.”

Besides the tech and dollar questions, another looms: where to put all the food? She has a finite amount of space to store ingredients for 40 distinct menus.

With seven brands focused around burgers, VFC goes through upward of 80 pounds of ground beef a day. “Between that and Philly steak meat, it’s killing me — and bread,” Hargrove said about keeping up with inventory.

She opened one of the coolers to reveal cheese every which way: American, cheddar, pepper jack, Parm; and sliced, shredded and grated. When so many of the brands are offering burgers, burritos, tacos and grilled cheese sandwiches, cheese is key. “So much cheese,” she said as she shut the door.

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

It’s like playing whack-a-mole; another fridge and freezer are on the way.

Ping, ping, ping came the lunch orders.

“I can’t complain,” Hargrove said between pings.

Well, she does have one complaint. She got a 99 when health inspectors visited VFC Kitchens. The inspector told her she’ll get 100 after she regrouts the kitchen floor. Determined to get a perfect score, she’s regrouting, section by section, in her spare time.

Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.