Dirty Bird ghost kitchen takes flight during opening weekend in Van Aken District

When Hunter Harlor opened Dirty Bird ghost kitchen out of the Michael’s Genuine kitchen in Shaker Heights' Van Aken District last Wednesday, Dec. 9, his plan was to take things slow and use the first few weeks as a period of testing and tweaking the takeout- and delivery-only restaurant.

“No matter how hard you try, you’ll never have the finished product when you launch,” says Harlor. “You put it out there, get feedback, and adjust on the fly.”

Jordan Kirk, chef de cuisine at Dirty Bird But after word got out that the ghost restaurant opened—serving whole fried chicken, fried chicken sandwiches and bowls, the option to make your entrée Nashville Hot, and accompanying side dishes­—the customers ordered.

By Friday night, things got hectic within the first two hours of opening, Harlor says, adding that they had multiple customers ordering two whole chickens at a time. “By the second hour we stopped online ordering—you had to call,” he says. “With all our delivery platforms on, we sold out in two hours.” It was the same situation on Saturday night.

After a crazy opening weekend, Dirty Bird will not be taking online orders this week, but the staff will be taking phone orders. “We have to get through the week,” Harlor says. “We want to make sure people get good food. There was a longer wait time than we would’ve liked [this weekend]. It’s time to take some steps and do it right, slow it down a bit. Then we’ll add delivery back in.”

The massive response to Dirty Bird’s offerings does tell Harlor that there’s a market for his menu, and the response indicates Clevelanders already approve.

Harlor, who is general manager of Michael’s Genuine, says he got his feedback and will be on all-systems-go soon. He opened Dirty Bird to fill the gaps in the Michael’s kitchen, where dine-in business has slowed with the colder temperatures.

“We had a great summer at Michael’s,” he recalls, adding that the ghost restaurant concept occurred to him while trying out new Michael's recipes. “It’s what we’ve been making for ourselves to eat and we played with doing it on the Michael’s menu as a special.”

Harlor says recent traffic at Michael’s has been slow to the point that he shifted to takeout only. “We had dine-in in the fall and it was okay, but still not filling up every night,” he says. “I think people are trying to do the right thing. But when you can only take 20 people at one time and you can’t even fill those seats—and the stay-at-home advisory came—we had to make the call.”

Harlor says they then realized there’s a market for good fried chicken in Cleveland’s east side suburbs. Then he and chef de cuisine Jordan Kirk decided to kick things up a notch and offered Nashville Hot options on top of their BBQ Bowl and Southern Smoked thigh options. There are also sides like seasoned fries, macaroni and cheese, and baked beans.

“There’s something for everyone,” says Harlor. “It’s delicious and affordable.”

Harlor says smoked chicken thigh was a good place to start with the ghost kitchen menu. “Doing it has kind of been plug-and-play,” he says. “We’ve seen it done elsewhere, even before we shut down, we played with the idea. It’s a fun chance for us to play around with something that’s not on our menu.”

Despite a hectic, albeit popular, opening, Harlor promises they will spend this week refining their processes to accommodate the volume. They are working with a skeleton crew of eight employees—usually there are 35 on staff during normal times. “It’s all hands on deck,” he says, adding that customers can order from both Dirty Bird and Michael’s Genuine menus by calling (216) 230-8022.

When it returns, online ordering can be placed through DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Toast. Both restaurants are open 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. ever day except Sunday, and Harlor says they may do Saturday lunch in the future.

“The food’s good and we’re really trying to stay open,” says Harlor, adding that he is optimistic about the success of Dirty Bird. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we opened a second one.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.