Back to Blog
Ann Holtzapple

Ghost Kitchens Take Off During COVID-19

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."

Related Posts

PreciPan™ and TCM: Your Dynamic Duo in the K-12 Kitchen

Read More

The Ultimate Holiday Helper: Vulcan VCH16 Cook & Hold

Learn why a Vulcan cook and hold oven can be a valuable addition to your busy holiday season menu.
Read More

Tiny Space, Massive Flavors: How the Vulcan Minijet™ is Changing the Game

Read More

The Benefits of Scratch Cooking in K-12 Kitchens

Hoping to minimize processed, pre-packaged ‘heat-and-serve’ school meals, many schools use scratch cooking as a way to keep students full, nourished and growing.
Read More

5 Tips to Keep School Kitchen Cooking Equipment Clean

Routinely cleaning your K-12 kitchen cooking equipment not only supports efficient cooking operation, but also extends the life of your equipment. Follow these best practices to keep your Vulcan equipment performing its best for years to come.
Read More

Is a garden right for your school kitchen?

Everything from understanding plant biology while planning the garden to the architecture of a garden while building it. Kids of all ages can see first-hand what it takes to go from a seed to food.
Read More

QSR Food Safety: Safe Handling of Takeout

These days, customers enjoy having as many options as possible when it comes to safely picking up their meals.
Read More

Why Your Commercial Kitchen Needs a Steam Kettle

Steam kettles can provide your kitchen with immense benefits. Equipped with advanced technology, steam kettles can change your kitchen’s operations completely.
Read More

Restaurant Staffing Issues Continue. What Can You Do?

Restaurant work has not had the best reputation among workers, who may view it as fast-paced and stressful, thankless, low paying, lacking benefits and hard on family or social life with night, weekend, and holiday hours.
Read More

Proper Use of a Salamander Broiler

A salamander can do everything a cheesemelter can do and more. Its higher range of heat gives it versatility and much-needed speed, especially in busy commercial kitchens.
Read More

Seconds, Please! Creative Ways to Incorporate Vegetables into a School Lunch Menu

Read on for a closer look at the many benefits of eating vegetables, school lunch program nutrition standards for veggies and a roundup of ideas aimed at helping you incorporate more vegetables into your school lunch (and breakfast) menus.
Read More

Commercial & Restaurant Kitchen Equipment Guide

Read More

2021: The Return of the Restaurant

Read More

The Case for High-Efficiency Fryers

Read More

Rare Remarks: A Conversation with Dan DeRoma

Read More