Whether you want to call them ghost kitchens, dark kitchens, cloud kitchens, or something else, there's no denying that this new model has exploded in popularity these past few years. While that popularity has generated excitement about the prospect of these dining room-less restaurants, it's important to remember that ghost kitchens aren't an easy thing to pull off.
We chatted with some of those most experienced in the ghost kitchen game to find out some myths, best practices, and tips for success in this food service style.
What is a ghost kitchen?
A ghost kitchen (also known as a delivery-only restaurant, cloud kitchen, or dark kitchen) is a restaurant that is solely focused on cooking to-go meals. There's no dining room, no storefront, no servers, and in some cases not so much as a sign. One ghost kitchen may contain multiple units where different brands can prepare food for delivery, and in some cases, pickup.
Ghost kitchens emerged in the back half of the 2010s as delivery apps began to take hold of the dining market. And like the 2008 financial crisis showed us the necessity of food trucks, the pandemic brought ghost kitchens into the light and accelerated their growth.
What are the benefits of a ghost kitchen model?
As consumer demand rose for food delivery, ghost kitchens became an effective way to meet that demand. Benefits can include:
- Increased efficiency: Ghost kitchens are designed for efficiency with less staff, and can help restaurant owners save time and money. It can also be easier to add and remove menu items, as all menus are digital and there are no servers to train.
- Reduced overhead: Ghost kitchens have lower overhead costs than traditional restaurants, which can help owners save money. No front of house staff, smaller kitchen spaces, and no need for prime real estate that all contribute to the lower costs.
- Increased flexibility: Ghost kitchens offer increased flexibility for restaurant owners, as they can be located in any type of location.
How is it different from a virtual restaurant?
Where a ghost kitchen may prepare food from an existing, brick-and-mortar restaurant concept, a virtual restaurant does not exist in any real sense. It is just a “restaurant” that exists on a third-party delivery app such as DoorDash, GrubHub, or UberEats. The food may be cooked in a ghost kitchen, or come out of the kitchen of a traditional restaurant.
What are some types of ghost kitchens?
The ghost kitchen can take many forms. Here are a few examples:
Shared Ghost Kitchens
Shared ghost kitchens are commercial kitchens that are rented out to multiple food businesses. They are typically located in high-traffic areas and may be owned by a third-party company, such as Kitopi. These can also be called food hubs or incubator kitchens.
Commissary kitchens are large, professional kitchens where food is prepared for sale in a retail setting. It is typically used by restaurants, caterers, and food trucks. For example, a brand may prepare a bulk of their ingredients in a commissary kitchen, and assemble to order in a ghost kitchen.
Kitchen pods are self-contained, modular kitchens that can be leased or purchased. One such company is KitchenPodular.
When is a ghost kitchen a good idea for an operator?
While ghost kitchens may seem like the latest food business craze to hop onto, they're not for everybody. Here are a few reasons why an operator may want to try out the business model:
- Expanding the food delivery radius of an existing brand
- Testing a proven restaurant concept or idea in a new market
- Developing a new brand or concept
Recommended Reading: Restaurant Operations Overview: What You Need to Know
How to find success in ghost kitchens, according to people who have done it
Focus hard on your restaurant's brand
“When it comes to [restaurants] that don't have a physical presence, branding and marketing is absolutely essential. And I think it's something that's missed so often”, says Curtis Pintye, a chef and consultant who's helped open hundreds of ghost kitchens.
And branding is not just your name and logo. It's who you are and what you represent.
Without a physical restaurant that diners can experience, it can be hard to show it. It makes it a challenge to foster meaningful connection. When you don't have a brand that people already know about, finding customers isn't easy. And when so many ghost kitchen foods are ubiquitous—burgers, pizza, tacos, fried chicken sandwiches—your brand can help you find your niche.
“If you are dropping into a dark kitchen and your strategy for customer acquisition is, “I'm going to list on the third-party apps,” I would strongly recommend you don't do that,” says Kristen Barnett, founder of Hungry House, a ghost kitchen concept in New York City.
As the market for restaurant delivery expanded, third-party delivery apps flooded with listings. And while you can run ads on online ordering platforms to get yourself to the top, it can be cost-prohibitive for smaller restaurant owners.
“If you don't have the brand first, it's an uphill battle because as much as people want to think, [ghost kitchens] are the great gold rush, there are hundreds, if not thousands of pizza concepts, just here in San Diego...so you're competing with all that attention,” says Shawn Walchef, owner of Cali BBQ. They opened their first ghost kitchen during the pandemic in 2021 and another in 2022, both extensions of the original Cali BBQ in Spring Valley, CA.
But how do you establish yourself before jumping into the ghost kitchen game? By utilizing some of the traditional methods: pop-ups, guest dinners, and social media.
“I would still highly recommend you need some sort of base, whether that's the local pop-up farmer's market, some friend of a friend is letting you showcase, you need something that people can connect to, emotionally,” says Andrew Martino, owner of Ghost Truck Kitchen, a concept in Jersey City, New Jersey.
At Hungry House, the team will only work with a chef or brand that has an existing following.
“Start with a pop-up series, validate the concept, get people interested, build the social media, get email addresses, take pre-orders, capture data and refine the recipes, but don't get into a larger financial commitment until you've seen proven demand for what you do,” says Kristen Barnett.
If you have an existing, proven concept that you want to expand, that's even better. After more than 10 years at the original Cali BBQ location, Walchef and his team expanded their availability by tapping into ghost kitchens throughout the San Diego area.
But the bottom line is: a ghost kitchen cannot be successful without a strong brand.
Recommended Reading: Simple Restaurant Marketing Plan for 2022 [PDF Template]
Have a real goal in mind
Ghost kitchens are hot. But that's not enough of a reason to get into the business. With their low overhead costs, ghost kitchens are a great tool to expand, test a concept, or measure demand without locking yourself into a long-term brick-and-mortar lease.
Which is why it's so important to know exactly why you want to go with a ghost kitchen.
For Barnett and the team at Hungry House, their goal is to create a “very strong representation of a more diverse and equitable food industry,” according to Barnett. These values play a huge part in the chefs and brands that they help bring on.
For Cali BBQ, their goal is to become what Walchef calls the “Amazon Prime” of barbecue in the San Diego region. They converted the original restaurant into a master smokehouse model, and ghost kitchens act as a distribution center.
Or if you're looking to open your first restaurant, a ghost kitchen can be your proof of concept, according to Andrew Martino at Ghost Truck Kitchen.
Don't hide behind the curtain
The words “dark,” “ghost,” or “cloud,” may suggest hiding these concepts from customers. But if anything was most prevalent in our conversations was that it's the opposite of what to do.
Leading ghost kitchen operators are not shy about the model. Cali BBQ proudly showcases both of their ghost kitchens on social media.
“We have love behind our food. We're also not hiding the fact that we didn't smoke it in Barrio Logan. We cooked it in Spring Valley.” (Barrio Logan is the neighborhood where the ghost kitchen is located, and Spring Valley is the location of the master smokehouse).
Hungry House has a built-out space that takes walk-up orders, has a counter, and even a sign.
“We wanted customers to know who Hungry House was from day one, what we stood for, why we picked the brands we worked with, and what they meant to the consumer,” says Barnett.
By leading with transparency, ghost kitchen operators can build trust with customers. When brands aren't forthcoming about the food's origins, it can lead to ill will and bad press—affecting the success of ghost kitchens everywhere.
“I'm a big fan of, you know, this idea of kind of like bringing the dark kitchen out of the dark in a sense, don't be shy of your operations, show people what you are doing. I think if we, as an industry, really polish our kitchens and polish up the operations, then we can build that trust with customers,” says Curtis Pintye.
Walchef calls this a “friendly” ghost kitchen. Barnett and Hungry House call themselves the “anti”-ghost kitchen. But however you want to refer to it, it's clear that what we call ghost kitchens ought to have a different name. One that encourages operational transparency.
Stay present with customers
An extension of being transparent is staying present with your customers. While you may benefit by nixing the costs and time associated with a dining room and a front of house team, you sacrifice your front line of customer interaction.
Without dine-in, there are no servers to catch problems before they reach the customer. No way to interact with the diner as they eat the food.
So with ghost kitchens, staying present with your customers is important to building a sustainable business in the restaurant industry. But how?
“We monitor Yelp reviews, Google reviews, Facebook reviews, and making sure that if there is an issue we're able to respond directly to the customer...” says Shawn Walchef. At Cali BBQ, they use a tool from Ovation to manage all of their customer feedback.
Hungry House and Ghost Truck Kitchen both allow guests to pick up orders and experience the brand in a physical space. “Even though we don't have a huge physical presence, we have something and we have a place where customers can come in and pick up their food and see our staff smiling and smell the food being cooked,” says Martino.
But if your space doesn't allow for this, the most important thing is to stay present online like the Cali BBQ team. Curtis Pintye advises to always have a channel, be it social, email, or phone, that diners can reach you through.
“We don't want to have anything saying 'You can access us through a third party and that's it.' From a customer's perspective, that is the most frustrating thing,” says Pintye.
Remember why you got into this business
It's easy to get excited about the tech and software that makes ghost kitchens possible. But that makes it easy to forget the hospitality behind it all.
“I felt that the ghost kitchen industry over-indexed on all the amazing supply chain and tech innovations, but forgot why people order food,” says Barnett. This was part of the reason that Barnett started Hungry House.
Andrew Martino spent his career as a chef, and was sure to maintain his high standards as he ventured into the ghost kitchen model.
“A lot of the ghost kitchen concepts are more what I would consider to be food fulfillment warehouse. And that doesn't excite me. I'm not in it to be a food fulfill-er... That's that's not my role. That's not why I got into the restaurants in the hospitality,” says Martino
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Ghost Kitchens profitable?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the profitability of ghost kitchens depends on a number of factors, including the location, menu, and operating costs of the kitchen. However, ghost kitchens have the potential to be highly profitable, as they allow restaurant owners to capitalize on the growing demand for delivery services and takeout without the overhead costs of a brick-and-mortar location.
How long does it take to open a ghost kitchen?
The time it takes to open a ghost kitchen can vary depending on the size and scope of the project. Some ghost kitchens can be up and running in as little as a few weeks, while others may take several months.
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