As the restaurant business continues to change in the wake of coronavirus closures and limitations, “ghost kitchens” are now very popular around the United States, where delivery and takeout models are becoming dominant in this part of the service industry. That’s partially because the take-out and delivery model is so resilient compared to the old practice of opening a dining room. And as third-party delivery services spring up, ghost kitchens are proliferating, too.
What Is a Ghost Kitchen?
The ghost kitchen concept is essentially a kitchen that operates without the traditional storefront and seating space that a conventional restaurant offers. That means its footprint in a community is different, and the way that it interacts with customers is fundamentally different as well. In a ghost kitchen model, the ghost kitchen operators use what’s called a “commissary kitchen” as a rented kitchen space.
Ghost kitchens serve many different purposes, but the commonality is that the kitchen is separated from the dining environment. These kitchens are operating largely unseen by customers, hence the term “ghost kitchen.” These are also described as dark kitchens, virtual kitchens, cloud kitchens, or satellite kitchens. No matter what you call them, they help get the job done!
How Do Ghost Kitchens Work?
A ghost kitchen is typically working in a commercially-rented kitchen area, as mentioned. These commissary kitchens will typically have a lot of the major resources on hand that someone may need to come in and cook. As a rented kitchen space, the ghost kitchen’s commissary kitchen will need to have an array of standard tools such as a walk-in and storage, as well as ranges, ovens, and more.
Typically, a ghost kitchen works with a third-party delivery system to get food to customers. These customers primarily interact with the ghost kitchen through the Internet or mobile apps.
Different Types of Ghost Kitchen Concept Choices
Various types of ghost kitchens work in different ways to deliver food using a virtual model that does not involve serving customers in-house.
One major type of ghost kitchen is the independent ghost kitchen which serves one virtual brand. The third-party delivery service will have a relationship to that brand and its designated kitchen, and be able to promote it to hungry people on-demand.
Then there’s also a multibrand ghost kitchen concept that serves more than one brand. Here, economies of scale come into play.
The multibrand ghost kitchen illustrates how owners and other stakeholders can create two or more brands and combine the cooking space. There is a lot of opportunity here, and you’ll hear about these kinds of projects as more food service entrepreneurs spin up different kinds of offerings for delivery apps and services, again, with no actual dining room involved. You’ll see many of these brands center around a particular concept, a “burger brand” or “pizza brand” or some other defined brand where the recipes, ingredients and processes are all planned out, but the space in which they happen can be, well, anywhere.
Sometimes a ghost kitchen is owned by a chain of restaurants that do have in-house dining options. Experts often call these operationally managed ghost kitchens or virtual franchises.
There are, also, hybrid or “mid ground” ghost kitchens where there may be a small seating area or dining option, but most of the business goes to delivery.
In addition to all of these, there are specific types of ghost kitchens, like the incubator kitchen aimed at developing food service models and where there’s often a competitive model for various startups sharing a space. There’s also a model known as an “accelerator kitchen” that refers to the process of boosting these delivery-only brands, and a community kitchen that basically houses multiple tenants with some shared attributes. Experts also talk about ‘food hubs’ that are central areas for cooking and shipping, and food innovation centers that have their own particular business models around technologies that make food in special ways. A robot sandwich factory, for example, may be described as a food innovation center, where your standard traditional human-sandwich-artist operation will be a branded ghost kitchen.
Pros and Cons of Ghost Kitchens
Ghost kitchens have several major advantages – one of the main ones is savings in both startup costs and operational costs over time.
Kitchens that don’t have the capability of renting or buying an entire building to operate a traditional restaurant can benefit from agile cost management with a ghost kitchen model.
They can also boost their food service operations and scale more quickly with this type of commissary kitchen strategy.
Another major benefit of the ghost kitchen involves health inspections and regulatory oversight. Because some jurisdictions have pretty stringent rules for food service and restaurant inspections, those who don’t feel confident about navigating the regulatory system can rely on the third-party kitchen provider to handle all of that.
Downsides of the Ghost Kitchen
Although these are great breakthrough ideas for many new food service brands and projects, the ghost kitchen does have its potential disadvantages.
For one thing, a ghost kitchen may be a shared space, which leads to a string of imaginable problems from an operational standpoint.
In addition, a ghost kitchen may not be fully furnished or set up with the specific equipment that the kitchen operators need. That’s generally part of the equation in figuring out the service agreement for the commissary kitchen, but certain kinds of problems can occur.
Obviously, too, without an on-site dining room, the ghost kitchen operator loses out on walk-in traffic and people who prefer to enjoy the environment of a restaurant, not just eat out of styrofoam or cardboard containers from home.
How To Set Up a Ghost Kitchen
There are two angles to this. First, the host company operating the commissary kitchen needs to set up well for the ghost kitchens that will operate there. Again, that means having a lot of the more generic large equipment including walk-ins, ovens, ranges, mixers and more. It means laying out a kitchen space that is versatile and can serve different needs.
For the ghost kitchen operator, setup involves planning and implementing the food service model or brand in this rented kitchen space. There’s a big design element, but there’s also a lot of brainstorming around actual operations. What does the ghost kitchen need that the commissary kitchen didn’t provide? What’s the staffing going to look like? Answering these questions and others involves detailed planning around how to support a concept, realistically, in practice. That’s a big challenge, and one that might require some longer term analysis.
Common Ghost Kitchen Equipment
Common equipment in a commissary kitchen involves those basic things that every kitchen needs to work. Commissary kitchens have dry and cold storage, food prep space, and some of the appliances we talked about above. In general, the commissary kitchen provides “the basics,” and the ghost kitchen either requests or obtains any additional tools needed to turn out a particular product.
Success with Ghost Kitchens
A busy ghost kitchen can make a lot of money if it’s set up right. For all of the gear and resources you need, talk to Chefs’ Toys about how to equip one of these versatile operations to serve diners remotely. We have actual kitchen experience in the real world, which enables us to really sit down with clients and advise them on how to succeed in the restaurant world. Check out our catalog and get connected with one of the best restaurant supply companies around!