As with any restaurant innovation, the ghost kitchen trend is evolving rapidly and growing at an accelerated rate. In this article, we’ll dig into everything you need to know about ghost kitchens and answer key questions like what is a ghost kitchen? Where did the concept of ghost or dark kitchens come from? What are the different types of ghost kitchens? What are the benefits of a restaurant opening a ghost kitchen? What could the future of ghost kitchens, and the restaurant industry now that ghost kitchens are a part of it, look like?
A ghost kitchen, also known as a dark kitchen, virtual kitchen, shadow kitchen or commissary kitchen, is a food preparation facility that prepares meals for delivery orders. You can think of a ghost kitchen as a restaurant without dine-in seating or a commercial kitchen optimized for fulfilling delivery orders. A ghost kitchen can be used to launch an entirely new restaurant, or to increase an existing restaurant’s reach by creating new “virtual storefronts” in different areas. A restaurant with a single brick & mortar location is likely only delivering within a 5-mile radius of their physical restaurant. If they were to create a ghost kitchen outside of that 5-mile radius, they could begin delivering to an entirely new customer base. Further, many restaurants create ghost kitchens in high order volume areas with a significant amount of delivery demand – resulting in increased reach, orders, and sales.
There are multiple factors that have contributed to the rise of ghost kitchens – from economic shifts, to changes in consumer behavior, to new forms of employment, rising real estate prices, and unforeseen cultural circumstances. Understanding where ghost kitchens came from requires us to consider that...
The final condition that can’t be ignored is the impact of COVID-19 on both consumer behavior and restaurants. As stay-at-home orders went into place around the globe, customers began ordering delivery more frequently than ever. And with reduced capacity and closures, delivery became the restaurant industry’s only means of survival. While restrictions continue to change and lift, delivery is still expected to grow at an accelerated rate over the next decade.
The combination of these cultural shifts and challenges opened the opportunity for innovation in many sectors, perhaps most notably the restaurant industry, and the trend of ghost kitchens caught steam. Fast.
Now that we know what ghost kitchens are and where they came from, let’s look at the different types of ghost kitchens.
1. Incubator or pop-up kitchens. An incubator or pop-up ghost kitchen is a space that’s attached to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but is used solely to fulfill online and delivery orders. Incubator kitchens allow traditional restaurants to try new concepts, minimize chaos in the kitchen, and create new revenue streams.
2. Commissary or shared kitchens. Commissary kitchens are commercial spaces shared by multiple restaurants. They come equipped with all the appliances and cookware you need to fulfill online orders, and don’t require a massive down payment or lifelong contract. Commissary kitchens are essentially kitchens available for rent to any restaurant or food entrepreneur.
3. Kitchen pods. A kitchen pod is the most bare-bones type of ghost kitchen. Generally run out of shipping containers, kitchen pods are often set-up in parking lots behind restaurants, making them easily transportable but small and uncomfortable to work in.
Save money… lots of money
Let’s start with one of the main benefits: ghost kitchens are more cost-effective than brick-and-mortar restaurants. These establishments not only allow you to get started with little capital investment (which means less risk), but they’re also a great way to cut down on operational costs. With no front-of-house labour, your team will be smaller, you won’t need as much space and you can say goodbye to decorations and most of the furniture. Thanks to these minimized costs, restaurants are able to maximize their profits.
No need for premium locations
Sure, you’ve been ordering food every Friday from the same Greek restaurant for months and you feel like you know it inside-out… but do you actually know where it is? Ghost kitchens are not meant to receive guests, so you’ll have more freedom when choosing a location. Even though you’ll need to take into account the delivery radio to place your kitchen in a hotspot, you can take advantage of under-used locations. This possibility to be in a less popular space will not only help you with finding a place faster and cutting down your costs, it’s also better for riders to collect orders.
Freedom to adapt and evolve
The beauty of only “existing” online is that you can easily change and adapt your concept. You launched a burger brand and it’s not performing as expected? No worries, it can be a hot dog shop by tomorrow. Do you want to partake in the popularity craze of Japanese sandwiches? You can, once you push your new menu live with a single click. This increased speed to market is great for those restaurateurs that are willing to experiment. Plus, you can even run multiple virtual brands to optimize your business from the same ghost kitchen.
If you’ve been juggling with both in-house and delivery orders, you already know how difficult it can be. By focusing on delivery only, ghost kitchens are able to prep more orders and get them to their customers in less time. Plus, if you work with a delivery management solution like Otter, all your online orders are streamlined onto one single tablet, regardless of which delivery app the customer is using. This means less hassle and more time to focus on what actually matters: the food.
Gaining visibility can be difficult without a physical footprint
Unless your restaurant is already well known, you’ll have to work hard on developing your brand. Forget about walk-in traffic: with no physical location, you’ll be forced to compete in a very crowded digital marketplace. Our advice? Customer reviews are key. If you still don’t have a strategy for reviews in place, this is the time to work on it in order to increase your restaurant’s credibility and boost your online positioning.
Maintaining and nurturing the customer relationship can be challenging
A brick and mortar restaurant is a place to offer experiences… but how do you offer a good experience at a distance? With almost 0 customer interaction, you have to get creative in order to build customer loyalty. Little details will be key for your customers to reorder and talk about your restaurant with friends or on social media.
Third-party delivery apps dictate the game
Running a ghost kitchen means that delivery platforms are your main sales channel. Even though apps like Uber Eats, Skip the Dishes and Grubhub are great at getting you in front of a large audience and spreading the word, you will be depending on third parties and giving away some of your control. Plus, you’ll need to learn how to navigate each platform in order to boost your brand visibility and achieve better search results.
You don’t necessarily own your reputation in the same way a traditional restaurant would
The timing of online orders is crucial, but not really on your hands once the food has left the kitchen: will the driver pick up the order on time? How fast will it be delivered? Will the items arrive as intended? Like it or not, your reputation will be affected by the service of third-party delivery apps and, sadly, a bad experience with them will reflect on your restaurant. In order to take control, it’s a must to be on top of your online orders and numbers. By partnering with a solution like Otter, you can seamlessly sync all your orders in one place to eliminate errors in fulfillment and get valuable metrics on your business like missed orders, lost revenue, availability breakdown and more.
It’s clear that ghost kitchens offer many advantages, but are they actually here to stay? According to a new report by Rockville Research, the global food delivery market “is estimated to be valued at US$ 254 billion in the year 2028, growing at a CAGR of 10.9% in the period 2021 to 2028”. Considering that delivery is expected to keep growing faster than dine-in, ghost kitchens remain a great choice for restaurateurs to future proof their businesses.
As long as ghost kitchens present a lower cost alternative to operating a traditional restaurant, there will be space in the market for them.