• Chris Posner, CEC

Do you believe in ghosts...

The restaurant business is difficult. The hours are long, qualified help is difficult to find, margins are slim, and there are many variables which can negatively affect business- the weather; the economy; competition; oh yeah, and a worldwide pandemic.

2020 pushed the food business over the edge of a cliff the entire industry was already dangerously teetering on with 1 in 6 restaurants closing nationally due to lockdowns, office closures, and every other negative affect caused by Covid-19. Many restaurants, and restauranteurs, seemingly disappeared. But if there is one thing people in the food business excel at it is thinking on the fly, adapting, pivoting, and giving 110%. So, did these restaurants and restaurateurs disappear, or simply become ghosts?

The past 10 years as seen an evolution of the food industry- from the rise of food trucks (spawned by the devastation wreaked on the restaurant business from the 2008 economic crises), to pop up restaurants (also, thank you 2008) to the growth of food halls, the idea of a traditional restaurant was morphing. Eating, or more appropriately dining, was becoming more convenient, mobile, and like most things nowadays, available immediately with a click. Technology has also been evolving at a furious pace, fueling the food business via social media, direct to consumer platforms, grocery delivery, and a new era of "order for delivery". Food delivery is not a new idea, but like the food industry on the whole, it too is evolving.

"Hi, I'd like to make an order for delivery", is a statement voiced over the phone for decades. More times than not that phone call is for pizza, subs ( hoagies or grinders, depending on where you live) or Chinese food- foods that can retain integrity during transit, and come from restaurants which don't typically serve many customers in their dining rooms, so orders don't interfere with operations. Now it's tough to say what was the chicken, and what is the egg here, but somewhere between new advances in technology, the direct to consumer channel growth, rising rents, and Covid-19, like an apparition we enter the ghost kitchen.

Ghost kitchen, virtual kitchen, dark kitchen, cloud kitchen, headless restaurant...call it what you will, but what started out as a way to kickstart food entrepreneurs, a way to avoid astronomical rents, and a way to capitalize on new tech, the ghost kitchen started to appear several years ago (quite frankly, "commissary" kitchens have been around forever, but have been reborn as ghost kitchens). While food delivery has seen growth over 300% over the last 5 years in part thanks to technology, it, like many things has accelerated exponentially due to the pandemic. Companies such as Zuul, Cloud Kitchens (started by the braintrust behind Uber, Travis Kalinick), and Kitchen United have been at the forefront of the ghost kitchen charge. Setting up in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, these companies are the architects responsible for driving in a new wave of food delivery. While you may not be familiar with any of the aforementioned company names, chances are if you've had food delivered recently, your delivery was prepared in one of their kitchens.

Now that your favorite restaurant is "closed due to pandemic", or where you live is in lockdown, you're cooking more at home. However, we all get that craving for restaurant food- pizza, wings, burgers, etc., and luckily these things are still available via delivery. Maybe you've recently ordered from Pasquales Pizza & Wings, a new delivery restaurant. Or It's Just Wings, another new delivery only restaurant. What people may not be aware of is they are actually ordering from Chuck E. Cheese and Chili's Grill and Bar, operators of the ghost kitchens for Pasquales and It's Just Wings. Just as independent operators are focusing on delivery to stay afloat, large corporations such as Chilis and Chuck E. Cheese, and more recently, Chipotle, are also vying for delivery dollars.

If you ask me if I think ghost kitchens are the future of the restaurant industry, my answer, and my opinion, are no. We are human, and we crave social interaction, as well as the wonderful experience of being in a restaurant dining room. I also don't believe ghost kitchens will disappear, like their name implies, I simply believe it is an evolution of the food industry. An industry which is constantly evolving, whether spurred by forward thinking, economic crisis, or a little worldwide pandemic...