While they're a relatively new concept, ghost kitchens, also known as dark kitchens or delivery-only kitchens, are still surging in popularity and have become a convenient and efficient way for foodservice businesses to expand in the United States. You've likely heard about how these virtual restaurants are changing the restaurant industry, especially after their growth was advanced by the COVID-19 pandemic of last year. With lockdown restrictions limiting (or doing away with) dine-in options and the virus making it risky for customers to go out in general, the demand for delivery orders skyrocketed. Rather than slow down operations in the regular brick-and-mortar restaurant, many restaurant operators have chosen to open separate ghost kitchens to handle their food delivery orders.
Essentially, restaurant owners operate these ghosts like any other commercial kitchen, but they don't typically have a brick-and-mortar storefront. Instead, these kitchens have a digital storefront where house staff members work exclusively to fulfill online orders. There may be a small area in the building where customers who prefer pickup or takeout orders can wait, or the restaurant kitchen may provide curbside pickup near the parking lot, but most of the effort goes toward delivery orders. It's likely that the dark kitchen business model will remain popular for both small restaurants and large restaurant brands alike, considering that 60% of United States consumers use restaurant delivery platforms at least once a week.
Another great thing about these delivery-only kitchens is that they can be started at much lower costs than traditional restaurants, making them great choices for entrepreneurs who want to try their hand in the industry but lack the capital to construct a full brick and mortar restaurant or to equip a full commercial kitchen. They're generally similar to a commissary kitchen, where the owner has already equipped the kitchen space with most of the equipment and appliances you'll need, so you'll just need to purchase whatever specific gear you'll need for your specialization (are you opening burger joints, bakeries, pizzerias, coffee shops, etc.).
A commissary like this generally boasts prime real estate as well, in an area with high delivery demand, all for a low price. If you're a restaurateur who wants to take advantage of the virtual kitchen trend, here are five great tips to run an efficient ghost kitchen.
1. Invest in the most convenient online order system.
Since you're entering the restaurant business without a traditional brick-and-mortar location, you'll be filling the vast majority of your orders from online ordering platforms from mobile apps and other devices. If you don't plan to hire your own delivery drivers, then the only way you'll have to get your orders from your cloud kitchen to your customers is to partner with delivery services like Grubhub, DoorDash, Uber Eats, Postmates, and other food delivery apps. A potential problem for new restaurants partnering with these mobile ordering and delivery platforms is that they generally charge a commission on each sale, which may take away too much of the profits from independent restaurants.
That's why you need to work with the best online ordering system that allows restaurants of all sizes to collect all their online delivery apps on a single device. For a flat monthly fee, you can process all online orders from any popular ordering widget in a centralized dashboard. This doesn't just make it easier for your staff to keep up with online food orders, but the platform also offers detailed analytics, so you can make better business decisions backed by data. This is a simple, low-cost premise that startups and large restaurants alike can get behind and become more efficient than their competition.
2. Take advantage of point-of-sale integrations.
Whether you're a brick-and-mortar restaurant or a ghost kitchen company, you'll always need a reliable POS system. A POS is commonly used by retail stores and restaurants alike to simplify transactions, track cash flow, help with inventory management, and much more. A typical restaurant POS will be equipped with a computer, customer-facing display, cash drawer, credit card and debit card reader, and barcode reader.
When running a shadow kitchen, you'll want to pursue POS integrations that allow your POS to connect with your online ordering software to further simplify orders and customer interactions. Integrations with ordering systems like ChowNow, MenuDrive, and GloriaFood will help you greatly increase your orders and expand your restaurant brand.
3. Provide standout customer service.
If you want to impress new customers and inspire customer loyalty, then you'll need to provide the best customer support you possibly can. Fortunately, you can take most of the same tips for typical restaurant businesses and apply them to your ghost kitchen. You may not have a dining room with table reservations, diners, and wait staff, but you can still apply the principles of fixing customer issues as quickly as possible and completing your deliveries in a timely manner. You'll be forced to incorporate technology already, so you've already taken care of one of the biggest issues some restaurants still struggle with.
Speaking of technology, your POS system makes it easy for you to collect customer data, which you can use to provide better experiences and boost sales. For example, you'll likely have mobile device numbers from your customers, which you can use to make special offers to your best customers and further inspire customer loyalty. You may have collected email addresses as well, which you can use in email marketing campaigns that showcase new products and services or offer coupons and discounts to loyal customers.
4. Improve your digital presence.
Since your delivery operations rely on your online menu, you'll need to have a strong online presence to attract customers for delivery and carryout in the first place. You can start by optimizing your own website and ensuring that it's mobile-friendly and that you have a good page load speed. You'll also want to optimize your menu for online orders, meaning that it's important to do away with items that may get soggy or easily damaged during a delivery and replace them with menu items that can be easily transported. Of course, you'll need to go beyond your restaurant website as well.
You'll want to embrace social media to easily connect with customers, and this means touching up things like your Facebook page and your Instagram stories. When you're conducting menu management, go ahead and take pictures of some of your most popular items, so you can share them on both your restaurant's website and on social media.
Your social channels are great places to show off promotions and loyalty programs as well. You may even want to combine your social presence with your online ordering with services like Facebook ordering. While you're at it, go ahead and make accounts on free business aggregates like Google My Business as well, so you'll have an easier time getting your eatery to show in local search results.
5. Don't forget about your packaging.
Since you're a virtual restaurant brand that doesn't take in-person orders, you need to make sure that your kitchen facilities can package your food in the most efficient and customer-friendly ways possible. These days, sustainable takeout packaging is extremely popular with both restaurant owners and customers alike. It helps you reduce waste while simultaneously improving your brand image, so what's not to like? Recyclable, reusable, and compostable packaging are the future of restaurants, and you'll want your ghost kitchen to be equipped in order to stand out from your competitors. Naturally, you can reinforce your brand on your packaging as well by including your logo.
Ultimately, ghost kitchens are great ways for new business owners to start a restaurant or for existing restaurants to try some experimentation with new concepts at a relatively low risk. They can also be a great new revenue stream for even the largest restaurant brands. With these tips, you'll be well on your way toward running an efficient and successful ghost kitchen.