When Bill Bonhorst was growing up, Thursdays were a crucial day of the week: It was when his parents got paid, which meant it was the one day the family would go out to eat. Limited to the dining options in his small Connecticut hometown, the Bonhorsts often hit up fast-food staples, where Bonhorst became a connoisseur of fries — the KFC wedges, the crispy McDonalds batons. “For us, fast food was special, so that’s just how I was sort of raised,” he says. “I never met a french fry I didn’t love.”
In 2018, Bonhorst turned that passion into Man vs. Fries, a Bay Area pop-up serving battered and seasoned fries topped with carne asada or stuffed in burritos. This fall, Man vs. Fries landed in cities along the West Coast via Reef Kitchens, a ghost kitchen company that houses several delivery-only food businesses in a single “vessel” — basically, a large food cart. One of those cities was Portland, and Bonhorst isn’t done yet; after opening Man vs. Fries’ first Portland location November 12, he’ll open another in a matter of days.
The flagship dish at Man vs. Fries starts with a choice of fries — seasoned straight or curly — followed by a choice of toppings. Bonhorst offers a choice of carne asada or pollo asada, with a foundation of cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and “secret sauce.” “NorCal” style sticks to those toppings, while the “SoCal” style also includes grilled onions, cilantro, and jalapeños. Man vs. Fries has grown into a larger operation, however, with chicken-bacon-ranch fries, the Crunchwrap-adjacent “Cali Crunch” stuffed with Flamin’ Hot Doritos or Cheetos, and other hype-beast snacks, desserts, and burritos.
Reef Kitchens, the cloud kitchen branch of the larger company Reef Technologies, was the brand that briefly brought David Chang’s fried chicken sandwich brand, Fuku, to Portland; the company has started getting into big-name territory, slinging Pok Pok wings and housing celebrity chef Rachael Ray’s virtual restaurant. Bonhorst knew that he wanted to grow his business outside of a traditional brick-and-mortar model, and he liked the way Reef structured its ghost kitchens, fostering internal growth within the companies and allowing business owners to stay connected to the kitchen teams.
“The way they operate internally, the way they treat their brands, has been so special to me so far,” he says. “They have a whole [research and development] team; I made training videos, and then I got to go out and spend a week with the team prior to launch. I have weekly updates with my whole team, we’re on Instagram together — I’m there, I’m with them, and I’m showing these employees how we actually create and develop Man vs. Fries.”
Reef is also a company that has helped food brands grow quickly. Man vs. Fries’s San Francisco and Oakland locations now have siblings in both Portland and Seattle, and Bonhorst isn’t stopping there: He’s currently working on locations in Houston, Atlanta, Austin, Los Angeles, and Toronto — all by the end of the year. “It’s a great way to scale, to get your food out there,” Bonhorst says. “I want as many people as possible to get Man vs. Fries in their hands.”
Portland, as a city, has been uniquely primed for these sorts of businesses, with a thriving food cart culture and several pods spread across the city. Several restaurateurs in the Portland area, from Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker to Chefstable’s Kurt Huffman, have explored the idea of delivery-centric restaurants and business models, with the interest in takeout and delivery growing exponentially over the last year. Smokin Fire Fish, a rising star Hawaiian restaurant originally set to close on Broadway, found a new home in the North Russell Tamale Boy, where Jaime Soltero Jr. is also exploring the concept of housing multiple restaurants in one kitchen. And the Grand Central building in Southeast Portland turned its restaurants into a single “online food hall,” with a number of concepts serving takeout and delivery.
Even before 2020, Portland chefs started to dabble in cloud kitchens: Top Burmese, which now has two restaurants in the Portland area serving dishes from Myanmar, started as a delivery-only restaurant in Northwest Portland. Despite these alt-model successes, Fuku’s initial foray into Portland via ghost kitchens was short-lived, drawing criticism for launching in the early days of the pandemic.
Regardless, it seems Bonhorst is pushing forward with optimism — Man vs. Fries will open its second Portland location at 321 SW 2nd on December 7, with onsite pickup and delivery on a number of apps. His current location, within the Park the Carts pod, is now open.
• Man vs. Fries [Official]
• Park the Carts [Facebook]
• Fuku’s National Expansion Plans Could Hinge on Ghost Kitchens [E]