Even before the pandemic forced restaurants to shut down their dining rooms, the business of food delivery was booming. It’s never been easier or more popular to take out your phone, scroll through third-party delivery apps like DoorDash or Seamless, and order takeout from a wide range of offerings.
That wide range of options is key. Maybe some restaurants survived without delivery services pre-pandemic, but now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a business that stayed afloat the past few years without takeout. As you scroll through your food delivery app of choice, you can no doubt see every single restaurant in your area. In fact, you might notice an impossible amount of restaurants — almost as if there are more delivery options than there are physical, dine-in establishments in your neighbourhood. You’re not crazy. Instead, you’re probably picking up on the growing trend of ghost kitchens.
Let’s dive into what ghost kitchens are, how you can spot them, and why you should care.
What are ghost kitchens?
Ghost kitchens aren’t as spooky as they sound (bummer). Ghost kitchens are physical spaces to make takeout orders, with no brick-and-mortar dining room for customers to eat. This makes them “invisible” compared to traditional restaurants.
Although ghost kitchens existed pre-pandemic, COVID accelerated their rise. According to CNBC, top brands such as The Halal Guys, Dog Haus, and Wow Bao have found success with the ghost kitchen model: “It allows restaurants to cut costs and make profits during a global pandemic.” Some examples of ghost kitchen brands you might recognise: Chilli’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy lists as It’s Just Wings; Applebee’s as Neighbourhood Wings; Chuck E. Cheese as Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings. (Is anyone else craving wings all of a sudden?)
Compared to in-person dining, ghost kitchens see significant savings on start-up costs, rental space, and staffing. Everyone from small, independent restaurants to chains like Wendy’s, Applebee’s, and Cracker Barrel turned to ghost kitchens during the pandemic. Hospitality Technology predicts that the ghost kitchen industry will be worth $US71.4 ($99) billion by 2027. QSR reports that the kitchens are predicted to hold a 50% share of drive-thru and takeaway foodservice markets worldwide. In short: Ghost kitchens aren’t going anywhere soon. So, what does the growth of ghost kitchens mean for you?
Why ghost kitchens matter for you
Some argue that ghost kitchens are unethical and misleading to customers. Others predict ghost kitchens threaten the sustainability of traditional food service business models. Here’s a breakdown of how ghost kitchens might affect your takeout experience.
As a consumer, a primary concern about ghost kitchens is probably the quality of food. From a taste standpoint, there’s nothing to suggest that these outsourced kitchens take a sudden dip in quality — especially if you’re ordering from a smaller brand that is using the ghost kitchen model to expand their existing operations.
When it comes to health and safety, ghost kitchens must abide by restaurant regulations. However, one red flag is that customers can’t access health inspection letter grades for ghost kitchens like they can at traditional restaurants.
Outside of your culinary concerns, your concerns are economical (like trying to save money on takeout and delivery) and ethical (like, cough-cough, third-party services that keep their employees’ tips, cough-cough). To get a more personal perspective on these fronts, I called up David Dietz, owner of BBC Tavern and Grill in Greenville, Del.
(Full disclosure: Dave Dietz is my dad, and I grew up working in the restaurant. Fuller disclosure: I thought I knew what his opinions would be on ghost kitchens, but I was totally wrong.)
Ghost kitchens aren’t replacing in-person dining
Some think pieces compare the threat of ghost kitchens to restaurants as that of Amazon delivery to in-person retail shopping. Dietz, however, sees it differently: “People are always going to want to sit down and eat at a restaurant.”
In other words, sure, the Amazon-killing-retail analogy might describe services like Instacart and grocery shopping. Going out to eat, however, is a fundamentally different experience compared to running errands, or needing to stay in and order Chinese food. Then again, as a formerly avid movie-goer, I understand the concern.
Still, Dietz says that ghost kitchens are a way for smaller restaurants to compete in the marketplace, allowing them to expand operations and streamline deliveries during a time when everyone is ordering in. Likewise, The New York Times points out that ghost kitchens can be “a lifeline for the independent restaurateur.” At the same time, given the exploding marketplace, the fact of the matter is that ghost-franchise brands (MrBeast Burger comes to mind) are able to pay third-party apps to prioritise their offerings, while independent restaurants (like my family’s) get pushed further and further down.
How to spot a ghost kitchen
Whatever your concerns are when ordering takeout, maybe you simply want to know exactly where your food is coming from. Here are out tips to spot a ghost kitchen:
- Look up the restaurant name. It sounds simple, but put on your detective hat and see whether the restaurant has a physical location, pictures, reviews, or even seems to exist. Just like with people on dating apps, a lack of online results could mean it’s a ghost.
- Expand the full description of the restaurant in the delivery app; the ghost kitchen brand might include fine print about their parent company (e.g. Applebee’s as Neighbourhood Wings).
- Cross-check the address of the restaurant you are considering and the brand’s headquarters. If they list the same address, it’s a ghost kitchen.
- Look at the addresses of several offerings in your area. If you start to notice that there are impossible amount of restaurants all located on top of each other, it’s a ghost kitchen operation.
Given all this information about ghost kitchens, I’m going to keep doing what I think has been the best guidance for years now: Try to order from restaurants directly whenever possible to support them instead of the big-name apps.