COVID-19 has rocked the restaurant industry, requiring many operations to adapt and evolve in order to stay afloat. One trend that’s gained significant momentum during this precarious time? Ghost kitchens. Here’s a closer look at this trend, along with things to keep in mind if your restaurant is considering this innovative option.
What is a Ghost Kitchen?
In response to the question, "What's a ghost kitchen?" celebrity chef Eric Greenspan defines them as places "where virtual brands are produced without a brick and mortar location. They're facilities that are made solely for producing virtual brands." However, the ghost kitchen definition is also used to describe pick-up and delivery-only restaurant concepts.
Not a new phenomenon, the ghost kitchen concept has been rising in popularity for years in response to increasing diner demand for food delivery. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, the ghost kitchen model isn’t just about what diners want, but also about generating critical revenue while keeping costs low for restaurants unable to provide in-house dining.
While COVID may have accelerated the shift toward ghost kitchens, the trend -- hailed as a “disruptor” by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) -- is here to stay. “The rise of placeless restaurants will challenge and redefine the concept of what a restaurant is,” asserts the NRA’s Restaurant Industry 2030 Report. Ghost kitchens are also well-aligned with the ongoing movement toward app-based meal delivery services.
Citing market research estimating that delivery-only restaurants will be a $1 trillion industry by the year 2030, EATER recently declared ghost kitchens to be “the wave of the future.”
Meeting Diner Demands Unprecedented Times
Built entirely for the off-premise dining market, ghost kitchens offer the carry-out/delivery option diners are looking for while supporting growth opportunities for restaurants. Says a QSRAutomations report, “The beauty of a ghost kitchen is that it allows your operation to run leaner and meaner than ever before. With a ghost kitchen, you can keep your staffing minimal to the cook staff only. There is great value to that both in the immediate future and what's to come.” As environments void of outside contact, ghost kitchens are also uniquely pandemic-friendly.
While some restaurants are using their own brick and mortar spaces for operating ghost kitchens, others are turning to virtual kitchen companies like Kitchen United, which provide space for multiple takeout, delivery and catering restaurants under one roof. These restaurants don’t just share facilities, but also overhead costs.
Said Smokey Bones CEO James O’Reilly this past spring of the chain’s first virtual kitchen in a Chicago Kitchen United, “That we can open a new urban point of distribution during an economic downturn speaks to our confidence in this strategy and the strength of our partnership with Kitchen United.”
Equipping a Ghost Kitchen
Ghost kitchens are unique in that customers never see them. At a time when open kitchens have been trending, this brings with it a huge benefit: functionality can be the focus above all else. As such, the primary design requirements are “speed, accuracy and efficiency,” according to Foodservice Equipment & Supplies (FES) magazine. Ghost kitchens also save restaurants money by eliminating the need for front-of-the-house furnishings.
While the in-house diner experience is no longer a concern for ghost kitchens, high-quality food and customer service remain paramount -- which is why it’s vital to have the right menu, equipment, and delivery services in place.
For example, regardless of the means by which it gets onto their plates, diners will still have high expectations for food quality and taste. Outfitting your ghost kitchen with the right equipment, such as heated holding equipment, can help to ensure diner satisfaction and the loyalty that goes along with it. By distributing heat evenly and maintaining temperatures without degrading food quality, heating holding cabinets keep orders in optimal condition until they’re ready for delivery or pickup.
While the specifics vary depending on the specifics of your restaurant and concept, other ghost kitchen-friendly equipment includes multi-cook ovens, combi ovens, and blast chillers. Ventless systems, which don’t require water hookups or conventional ventilation systems, are also a go-to for many ghost kitchen startups using pop-up spaces which may not have previously been set up as kitchens.
With speed the imperative in any ghost kitchen business model, cutting-edge “smart” equipment can also be an invaluable addition. Ovens with remote, pre-programmable and one-touch functions have the potential to save time, training and labor.
Other Elements of a Successful Ghost Kitchen
Of course, speed isn’t just about equipment, but also about its setup. Take Miami’s The Local Culinary, which incorporates eight concepts into its delivery-only model. To trim time, the restaurant does not divide the space by concept but by hot, cold, prep and storage station areas, according to its founder Alp Franko. Because the food must be prepared within the time span of six or seven minutes, the prep area -- which occupies a full half of the kitchen space -- is especially important. Areas are also designated for packaging, holding and pickup.
Choosing a flexible module design, meanwhile, allows ghost kitchens to adjust their operational flow depending on their changing needs.
Ghost kitchens have many appeals for restaurants, but they also have unique challenges pertaining to marketing, branding and location. Regarding location, ghost kitchens are most successful in urban areas populated by digital natives prone to ordering delivery multiple times a week.
Speaking of digital natives and technology, the pivotal role played by the latter cannot be overstated -- both as it pertains to ghost kitchens and to general restaurant operations. “Ultimately, anything that helps us deliver on evolving consumer expectations and meet consumers where they are is something we consider a priority. We recognize this disruption is not going to end with ghost kitchens, and we are constantly looking at technology to understand and anticipate how it will impact our business,” farm-to-table chain B.GOOD CEO Chris Fuqua told FES.
Is a Ghost Kitchen Right for Your Restaurant?
While ghost kitchens are ideal for many restaurant concepts and their customers, they’re not suitable for all. As with in-house dining, the customer experience should be front and center when setting up a ghost kitchen. Your restaurant’s ability to deliver in this area is the topmost consideration for whatever type of kitchen you’re running.
If you’re still not sure whether starting a ghost kitchen is right for your restaurant, there's one way to get a better idea: Ask the people who ultimately make or break its success. Andrew Park, VP of CX Strategy and Enablement at customer experience intelligence platform InMoment told QSR, “If a brand is on the fence about providing this type of offering, all they need to do is reach out to their customers and ask. Those brands that continually listen and act on the feedback their customers provide through this unprecedented time will come out much stronger brands with strong customer loyalty."