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North Side neighbors haunted by ghost kitchen traffic

The new commercial kitchen — which rents space to Chick-fil-A — has no dine-in space and relies on app-based delivery drivers who appear in droves around lunch and dinner.

Cloud Kitchen at 4131 N. Rockwell St. in the North Center neighborhood on the North Side, Friday evening, Jan. 29, 2021.
Delivery drivers pick up orders at Cloud Kitchens, 4131 N. Rockwell St., in the North Center neighborhood on Jan. 29.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Things are a bit of a mess in the 4100 block of North Rockwell Street.

A steady flow of Uber Eats, Grubhub and other delivery drivers picking up food from a commercial kitchen on the block, neighbors say, is disrupting life and creating a dangerous environment for pedestrians.

Cloud Kitchens — which was founded by former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and has locations across the country, including five in Chicago — opened for business on Rockwell in July. The company bought the building, remodeled it and rents kitchen space to restaurants including Chick-fil-A to fill online orders only. There is no dine-in space.

The business model is known as a ghost kitchen.

Ald. Matt Martin (47th) said dozens of delivery drivers, as many as 70 an hour during the lunch and dinner rush, clog the street as they pull up to the building to pick up food orders. Deliveries from semi-trucks are a problem, too, he said.

“We get multiple complaints daily,” Martin said. “It’s the single biggest business issue we’re dealing with right now in the ward.”

Cloud Kitchens received city approval to operate on property zoned for light manufacturing. It’s on a two-block riverfront stretch that for decades has operated as an industrial corridor in an otherwise residential neighborhood.

Deidra Suber, general manager of the Cloud Kitchens on Rockwell, pointed to the industrial roots and their right to exist despite a small group of wealthy homeowners who’d rather see more big homes and high-end retailers move in.

“The interests pressuring Ald. Martin include $7 million riverfront mansions and a luxury pet hotel that are seemingly happy to throw away the jobs of 71 of his constituents and countless small restaurant businesses in favor of their desired gentrification,” Suber said in an email.

A group of neighbors and business owners pose for a photo after gathering to discuss increased traffic in their neighborhood after Cloud Kitchen opened at 4131 N. Rockwell St. on the North Side.
A group of neighbors and business owners complain about traffic after Cloud Kitchens opened at 4131 N. Rockwell St. on the North Side.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Nine homes are on the block, including seven that were developed in the early 2000s on what was previously a boatyard along the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Several area residents said nearby homeowners and businesses on Rockwell have existed in relative harmony for years, and they say comparing Cloud Kitchens to other industrially zoned businesses on the corridor is an apples-and-oranges endeavor.

The other businesses include a brewery, a dog training facility, a furniture maker, a day care and a company that stages furniture for properties up sale.

“Other industries on the block don’t rely on high volumes of inattentive delivery drivers,” said Kristi Noonan, a nearby homeowner.

Many believe things are bound to get worse as more restaurants rent space and churn out more food orders. About half of the facility’s kitchen space is occupied.

Michael Heltzer, who owns Stay, a dog hotel across the street from Cloud Kitchens, said he’s begun to escort customers to their cars to ensure their safety.

“It’s utter chaos,” he said, adding he’s lost business because of it.

Cloud Kitchens accused Heltzer of using threatening language with its staff and improperly blocking public parking spaces with signs claiming the spots were for his business.

Four other Cloud Kitchens locations — at 3517 N. Spaulding Ave., 3220 W. Grand Ave., 846 W. Superior St. and 2537 S. Wabash Ave. — have had few or no issues, according to aldermen from each of those wards. None of four locations has single-family homes on the block.

Several neighbors near the Cloud Kitchens on Rockwell recounted near collisions between pedestrians and hurried delivery drivers who often appear to be glancing at their phones.

Neighbors on surrounding blocks are affected, too, said Cynthia Chernoff, who lives a block east and has noticed an increase in speeding cars. “I have a 9-year-old son, and I’m worried about what could happen if he chases a ball in the street,” she said.

Cloud Kitchens has put out “Slow! Children at Play” signs and hired two former Chicago cops to act as security officers and traffic aides.

On Tuesday, one of them asked a delivery driver who briefly double parked: “You picking up? Is it ready? One hundred percent ready? I’ve got to have you circle the block then.”

Other complaints include encounters with rude delivery drivers, garbage being left on the ground and the smell of greasy food, Martin said.

A Grubhub delivery driver and others walk in and out of Cloud Kitchen at 4131 N. Rockwell St. in the North Center neighborhood on the North Side, Friday evening, Jan. 29, 2021.
A Grubhub delivery driver and others walk in and out of Cloud Kitchens, 4131 N. Rockwell St., in the North Center neighborhood on Jan. 29.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Julia Miller runs Delmark Records next door. “The smell is gross,” she said, noting the odor makes it hard to hold recording sessions. “We light incense.”

Brian Holdampf, 52, who’s mostly retired from running a business that set up call centers, lives in one of the homes built on the former boatyard.

“This location makes no sense. I think they have to move,” he said.

The city’s zoning laws have not evolved in a way that takes into account Cloud Kitchens’ business model, neighbors and Ald. Martin said.

Martin said there was opposition to Cloud Kitchens moving in, but the way zoning is set up there wasn’t much that could be done. “I feel that our code was not set up to deal with uses like this,” the alderman said.

“It’s typical Uber. They found a crack, a loophole, in the system and they’re exploiting it,” Holdampf said.

Martin called a community meeting Jan. 26 with neighbors and a representative of Cloud Kitchens. The city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection acted as mediator.

Cloud Kitchens was tasked with coming up with solutions to neighbors’ issues before another meeting Feb. 22.

“If that is not successful, we’d have to consider what nuisance-related actions we can bring against the business,” Martin said.

At the meeting, Suber said Cloud Kitchens was committed to working out issues despite believing the business was facing a double standard. Suber said neighboring businesses also cause parking issues.

For many neighbors, no amount of finesse can solve the problem.

“It’s a business model that’s unsustainable in this location, that’s what it comes down to,” Noonan said.