Donna BerryCHICAGO — Food delivery apps have inspired chefs around the country to start their own restaurants. Not the traditional ones with tables and wait staff, where the right space and location matters, rather they are renting space in industrial kitchens and using third-party delivery services. Known as “ghost kitchens,” with most facilities lacking signage or any visible branding, this concept helps bring new cuisines and menu concepts to urban areas.

“A ghost kitchen has none of the things we commonly associate with a restaurant, namely servers, seating and signage,” said Christopher Sebes, restaurant technology strategist, Naples, Fla. “Also sometimes called a virtual restaurant, dark kitchen or cloud kitchen, this facility exists only to serve orders placed via mobile app or delivery service web page.

“Ghost kitchens are coming into their own. Their promise is lower rent and lower up-front costs. Many of the costs, once prohibitive and slow to recoup, will drop.”

Ghost kitchens are often owned and operated by a management company, which may assist with sales and marketing. Multiple kitchens allow for many varied cuisines prepared in a single facility, which gives new meaning to the concept of “something for everyone” when a family or office places an order. The shared commissary space often will house a takeout and delivery counter to ease the process, a feature that proved to be useful with coronavirus restrictions.

Most kitchens come equipped with cold storage, stove top, oven and sink. Counter space and industrial electrical outlets allow for extras, everything from blenders to deep fryers.

“The space allows chefs to create a virtual brand or expand the reach of an existing bricks-and-mortar brand,” Sebes said. “It’s all digital. You can create a restaurant from your imagination.”

This includes the menu. Such flexibility invites chefs to offer daily specials and work with local, seasonal suppliers. If an ingredient becomes too expensive or is no longer available, a digital menu allows for easy substitution or changing. Keeping the menu fresh and different encourages customers to become “regular” patrons during the new normal approach to “dining out.” 

“The opportunity is immense,” Sebes said. “The changes we’re seeing will provide unprecedented chances to experiment, test and refine. Launch a new concept exclusively in a delivery app. Run multiple concepts from a single location. Meet demand for constant variety. Ghost kitchens and today’s digital-first world make all of this more accessible and manageable.

“The chefs are constantly getting feedback as part of the delivery app, allowing them to pivot or tweak. If something doesn’t work, move on to try something else without much financial loss.”

This feedback helped many businesses streamline their menus during the delivery and take-out only restrictions when digital orders skyrocketed in many densely populated cities. Ghost kitchen operators found themselves uniquely poised to already be following health and safety guidelines, as they have small staffs, make food to order and package foods in individual containers.    

“During a time of uncertainty in the restaurant space, ghost kitchens provide effective solutions for both restaurant owners and customers,” said Andy Wiederhorn, chief executive officer, FAT Brands Inc., Beverly Hills, Calif.

FAT Brands opened its first ghost kitchen in Chicago in late April. Four of the company’s brick-and-mortar brands — Fatburger, Buffalo’s Express, Hurricane Grill & Wings and Yalla Mediterranean — currently operate out of the space owned and managed by Epic Kitchens, Chicago. This allows customers to simultaneously order menu items from multiple menus.

This Chicago partnership is part of a larger development agreement between FAT Brands and Epic Kitchens. The deal is set to include 20 ghost kitchen locations throughout Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York over the next two years. 

Los Angeles-based 800° recently moved into the same Chicago space. Founded in 2011 by Chef Anthony Carron, the philosophy of 800° starts with the purest ingredients — scratch dough, fresh produce and artisan-quality meats and cheeses — sourced from top purveyors, then fire-roasted to impart a unique, subtle, smoky taste. The chef-driven menu includes Mr. Carron’s signature appetizers, bowls, pizzas, salads and sandwiches and allows for seasonal innovation.

At the onset of COVID-19, Wingstop Inc., Dallas, moved quickly to close its dining rooms and shift to 100% off-premises. The company was well-positioned based on its pre-COVID investments in digital and technology platforms, allowing for the brand to seamlessly shift from 80% off-premises and adapt to the change in consumers’ dining behaviors. The resiliency of Wingstop was demonstrated in its April 2020 same-store sales growth of 33.4% and 65% digital sales, which included a delivery sales mix of more than 30% of total sales. In efforts to continue this growth trajectory and adjust to the changing landscape, the company opened its first domestic ghost kitchen in Dallas on July 1. It spans less than 400 square feet, compared to Wingstop’s average restaurant footprint at approximately 1,750 square feet, while offering the same full menu.

“We have a goal to digitize 100% of transactions as we drive to become a top-10 global restaurant brand and we believe ghost kitchens are a great step for the brand as delivery and digital sales continue to increase,” said Charlie Morrison, chairman and CEO.

Specialty food purveyor Eddie’s of Roland Park, Baltimore, operates a pseudo ghost kitchen in its bricks-and-mortar retail store. The company started a “Staycation Supper Club,” a summer adventure series for local foodies that combines heat-and-serve convenience with the thrills of culinary tourism. Featuring an array of global, chef-prepared dishes, the pay-as-you-go series offers a bi-weekly, $99.99 prix fix menu designed to serve six, along with free curbside pickup or contactless delivery.

The concept was the company’s answer to its customers’ appetite for adventure while acknowledging current travel limitations. The program kicked off with Tropical Paradise. The menu featured grilled shrimp and chicken kabobs, tropical gazpacho, fiesta slaw, coconut rice pilaf and a key lime tart.

Taste of the Bay is the current menu and includes peel-and-eat jumbo steamed shell-on gulf shrimp with onions and Old Bay seasoning, Yukon potato salad, tomato cucumber salad and cherry pie. To accompany the meals, the company issued a free Staycation Supper Club soundtrack on Spotify, consisting entirely of music from current Baltimore-area musicians and bands.

Another modified ghost kitchen concept is a partnership between supermarket chain Tom Thumb based out of Dallas and Terry’s Black Barbecue, a Texas restaurant with locations in Dallas and Austin. In response to the changing dining scene, Terry’s pivoted its business model and is now bringing its smoked meats directly to neighborhoods by packaging and stocking top-selling menu items at five Tom Thumb locations.