Invisible to customers, ‘ghost’ kitchens, a new trend in catering

Invisible to customers, “ghost” kitchens, a new trend in catering

You will not be able to eat there or even pick up your order, “ghost” kitchens only prepare dishes for delivery, a new model that took off in the United States with the pandemic.

Don’t look for a Firebelly Wings restaurant or a Monster Mac anywhere in the United States. You will never see their sign on the street.

Their chicken wings or their macaroni are however within reach of smartphone, via a home delivery platform. These brands, like dozens of others, were invented just for delivery.

Their dishes are prepared in so-called “ghost” kitchens, spaces closed to the public.

The phenomenon, also called “dark kitchen”, already in full expansion for two or three years, has benefited from a powerful boost thanks to the pandemic.

“Consumer habits have been changed by Covid-19,” says Nextbite, one of the operators of these ghost kitchens, which is notably behind Firebelly Wings or Monster Mac. “People who had never used these (delivery) platforms before got into it.”

Restaurants closed for months, then open under restrictions, scalded customers, preferring to eat at home, almost everything pleaded for delivery.

From January to September, DoorDash, leader of food delivery platforms in the United States (47% market share), handled 543 million orders, or three times last year.

The ghost kitchen movement “capitalizes a lot on restaurant closures, but I think they also create space, demand,” said RJ Hottovy, analyst at Aaron Allen & Associates.

– Kitchens for rent –

Zuul, C3, Kitchen United or even CloudKitchens – from Uber’s co-founder, Travis Kalanick – offer restaurateurs kitchens, sometimes fully equipped, an interface to manage orders and often advice for the development of their brands.

It is this last aspect that Nextbite highlights, which helps restaurants to develop new menus, developed in their existing kitchens.

Traditional catering players have also positioned themselves in the niche, and are opening ghost kitchens under their own names or are also inventing new culinary offers.

“Everyone is trying to find a solution to the downward pressure on margins,” highlights Kristen Barnett, No. 2 of Zuul, who manages a facility of nearly 500 m2 in the Soho district of New York. , housing nine different “kitchens”.

For Michael Roper, general manager of the small fast-food chain Muscle Maker Grill, opening a “dark kitchen” represents an investment of $ 75,000, while a classic restaurant would cost “between 350,000 and 500,000”.

And with a rental kitchen, “I can go pretty quickly from a concept of salads to a brand of burgers,” he describes, “with the only additional costs being visuals and possibly the name registration.”

To further improve margins, Zuul offers its own ordering platform, supposed to replace delivery giants like DoorDash or Uber Eats, which take up to 30%, at a lower cost.

– “The industry has changed” –

Ghost kitchens, by definition, happen with waiters, managers and other housekeeping staff who officiate in traditional restaurants.

RJ Hottovy observes that the restaurant sector has, in general, been resolutely oriented towards a “more productive model” in recent years, which “probably suggests a contraction in jobs” in the medium term.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center United, an association supporting catering employees, recently warned against increased insecurity, linked to “dark kitchens”, more mobile than traditional restaurants.

For some in the industry, this formula made it possible to negotiate the Covid-19 crisis, by offering additional outlets.

Better to take the lead, especially for small chains and independent establishments, the first “at risk” in the face of the emergence of virtual kitchens, according to RJ Hottovy.

Once the virus is under control, and restaurants are free to serve as they see fit, “the consumer will not go back,” says Michael Roper. “He will continue to lead. The whole industry has changed.”

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