The latest celebrity-fronted ghost kitchen features a name known to lovers of Chicago’s pop-up scene. Mario Lopez, the actor who portrays A.C. Slater on TV’s Saved by the Bell, is the face behind a new delivery-only Mexican restaurant called Mario’s Tortas Lopez. Lopez is treading close to Chicago chef Rick Bayless’ territory. Coincidentally, Bayless and his partners at Jollibee this week reopened their collaboration — Tortazo — for dine-in service at the Willis Tower.
Lopez, who also hosts Access Hollywood, is next in a line of celebrity endorsers with delivery-only restaurants, a list that includes Guy Fieri, Wiz Khalifa, with Mariah Carey upcoming. A news release makes it clear that Lopez and LA chef Eric Greenspan — a Food Network regular who specializes in ghost kitchens — created the recipes for Mario’s Tortas Lopez. Look for beef barbacoa, chorizo & egg, grilled chicken, pork carnitas, chile relleno, and vegan chorizo tortas and bowls.
Beyond Chicago, the concept is popping up in New York; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Miami; and Huntington Beach, California. Virtual Dining Concepts, a division of Grubhub, is behind the Lopez project.
During the pandemic, chefs have seen ads from third-party delivery companies eager to market their food with a celebrity endorser. The payout is tempting to restaurant workers who are struggling during the pandemic. The news release breaks it down as a chance to “offer independent restaurateurs the opportunity to use their existing staff and resources to serve more customers, generate more revenue, and diversify their business.”
Chefs aren’t permitted to disclose that they’re involved in the project, so while the experience could be beneficial, it won’t help their own brands. That’s the point of a celebrity endorser. In that same press release, a statement attributed to Lopez reads: “My entire family is very into cooking, and our best moments together are always around a table filled with food. Now I have the chance to share what I love and enjoy with families everywhere.”
In Chicago, third parties like Grubhub have been limited to charging restaurants 15 percent service fees. This is supposed to be a temporary action that will sunset after the effects of the pandemic wear off — there’s no date when the fee restriction will cease. The practices of third parties are still very much on the minds of restaurant owners across the country as this NBC News story shows. For example, DoorDash faces fee restrictions in 68 markets. In 57 markets, DoorDash has added a fee to compensate. This is the $1.50 fee the company instituted in December in Chicago.
The fee restrictions aren’t a factor if the third party is operating their own restaurant, as is the case with these celebrity-backed concepts. It’s in the same vein as Uber’s @Pizza gimmick which sells pies from local makers under a generic brand name.
Lopez has increased name recognition in Chicago thanks to the organizers of Saved by the Max, the successful Saved by the Bell pop-up the was born in the city. The Wicker Park restaurant drew a legion of fans of the NBC TV show — some even cosplayed as Lopez’s A.C. Slater.
Mario’s Tortas Lopez, delivery via Grubhub, now open.