The rise of 'ghost kitchens'

 

April 29, 2020

Ghost kitchens, also called virtual, cloud or dark kitchens, are the hottest new trend in foodservice. They're kitchen spaces that serve one function: delivery orders.

There is no storefront in a ghost kitchen. No restaurant. No front-of-the-house room with tables for people to dine in. No space for customers to wait for takeout. Parking? Who needs it? The only cars stopping at a ghost kitchen are from gig-oriented delivery services like UberEats, DoorDash and Grubhub.

There's a chicken-and-egg question going on here — which came first? The ghost kitchen concept or the cyber delivery juggernaut? Well, that depends on who you ask.

It seems so cutting edge and cyber-futuristic (Virtual kitchens? What next? Virtual food?) but when you think about it, everyone who has been a college student craving pizza on any given night is familiar with the concept of a ghost kitchen. It's called Domino's. Although Domino's does have storefronts, the delivery-only pizza chain has been around since the 1960s and their whole concept is essentially that of a ghost kitchen.

So, while Domino's paved the way, the new and meteoric rise of delivery apps has set the concept on fire. Third-party online delivery apps like DoorDash and Grubhub were brand new just a few years ago, but now they're a $19 billion, how-did-we-ever-live-without-it industry. It has some foodservice experts saying every brick-and-mortar restaurant, from the largest franchise chains to the smallest corner bistro, should consider opening a ghost kitchen. They can take many forms: simple leased kitchen space for one restaurant, or shared space in which a handful of restaurants operate under one roof and share everything from fridges to utensils, or even standalone "pods" outfitted with kitchens (think of a kitchen in a shipping container and you've got it).

While ghost kitchens may be the hot trend of the moment and have many advantages, there are some drawbacks, too. Here's a look at the pluses and minuses.

More space. One reason for the rising trend of ghost kitchens is, quite simply, restaurants were running into trouble fulfilling those online delivery orders during peak times. There simply wasn't enough real estate in their kitchens to fulfill online delivery and in-house orders. A ghost kitchen solves that problem.

Less stress. A huge influx of online orders during those peak times is stressful to your already overworked staff. If those orders are handled off-site, problem solved.

Less labor cost. There are no servers, hosts, bussers or other front-of-the-house people.

Operational differences. Slinging hash is slinging hash no matter where you do it, right? Not exactly. When you've got people who have spent their careers running or even working in a restaurant kitchen coming into a ghost kitchen, there's a pretty big learning curve. Labor costs are different. The job is different — no in-house customers to serve. Many seasoned restaurant vets have never managed a large-scale delivery concept. Serving only delivery is a different animal.

Profit margin. Those delivery apps typically take 10% to 30% off the top of the ticket, so those costs need to be factored in.

Does this new trend have staying power? That remains to be seen. In a few years, the trend might evaporate ... like a ghost on a foggy night.

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