Dark Kitchen vs. Virtual Kitchen vs. Ghost Kitchen: What's the Difference?

Dark Kitchen vs. Virtual Kitchen vs. Ghost Kitchen: What's the Difference?

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As restaurants continue to adapt to the ever-evolving demands of diners, new and often unexpected food trends are changing the way we eat.

Dark kitchens, virtual kitchens, virtual restaurants, and ghost kitchens are all terms that have been used with some confusion to describe recent developments in remote dining.

But does anyone actually know what these terms mean?

Take a look at some of the core concepts behind these new types of business model, and get an in-depth understanding of how they are changing the restaurant world today.

Key Concepts

This restaurant revolution is big business for merchants and food world entrepreneurs eager to give these new types of businesses a try. While they have many features in common, including online ordering and food delivery systems, there are also a few key differences, outlined below.


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Brand Ownership

Remote dining businesses can vary widely in terms of how they relate to the brand name they operate under. While dark kitchens produce their own food under their own brand, the kitchen-as-a-service model was developed to prepare food for other brands, allowing larger businesses to keep up with demand.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, this can lead to confusion, as many types of ghost kitchen may or may not have a public-facing brand at all.

In-House vs Outsourced

Another key factor in understanding ghost kitchen terminology is the question of labor. While traditional restaurants have their own cooking and serving staff on site, this is not necessarily true for remote dining businesses. For example, virtual kitchens aren't involved in kitchen operations at all, and instead relying on remote teams to produce the menus the create.

Types of Ghost Kitchens

Brand ownership and outsourced labor are the two key factors that differentiate some of the basic restaurant types below. However, it's important to understand that these terms are still new, and many people use them in different ways, depending on the context.

What is a Dark Kitchen?

Some say dark kitchens are the original version of the trend, where new or existing restaurants lease pre-existing kitchen spaces. They bring their own equipment, labor, and brand, to prepare menus of their own design. In many ways, they operate in much the same way as a traditional kitchen, with the difference of delivering food to remote diners, rather than operating a physical dine-in space.

What is a Kitchen-as-a-Service?

The kitchen-as-a-service model is the polar opposite of the virtual kitchen. They own equipment and hire cooking staff to produce food for one or more third-party brands. While the average diner may not be aware of the existence of kitchen-as-a-service businesses at all, they regularly consume the foods prepared at them, under a variety of more familiar brand names.

What is a Kitchen Aggregator?

Kitchen aggregators are some of the most hands-off businesses in the restaurant industry, using data driven technologies to bring foods to homes across the country. Examples are well-known food delivery systems like DoorDash and Uber Eats. While they don't have their own kitchens or food staff, they play a crucial role in getting meals to hungry mouths.

What is a Virtual Kitchen?

A virtual kitchen operates out of an existing brick-and-mortar restaurant. A pizza kitchen might be the best pizza restaurant in the area, but they're only going to attract one type of customer: people who love pizza. Virtual kitchens allow restaurant owners to expand their offerings and attract a new set of customers.

For example, a pizza kitchen could operate a virtual kitchen that sells hamburgers. The restaurant owner doesn't have to compromise their brand, add new items to the main menu or make more dining space. Instead, they make a new virtual restaurant that operates exclusively through delivery apps. They might not even mention the fact that the virtual restaurant is tied to their existing restaurant--instead, they market it as a completely new option.

Since they already have kitchen space, the pizza kitchen uses this equipment to prepare the new dishes. They outsource the delivery through apps like DoorDash, GrubHub, and Kitchen United so they don't have to hire new delivery drivers. This allows them to offer new dishes without spending too much money. Now that they have more options, the restaurant could enjoy increased profits.

What is a Ghost Kitchen?

Unlike a virtual kitchen, a ghost kitchen isn't attached to a regular restaurant. Instead, ghost kitchens are completely independent. The restaurant owner creates a menu, but instead of opening a brick-and-mortar location, they make their dishes in a kitchen that's closed to the public. Some ghost kitchens use their own kitchens, while others work in shared facilities with other ghost kitchens.

Ghost kitchens operate exclusively through delivery. Customers browse their options on delivery apps, place their order, then wait for the DoorDash or Postmates delivery driver to arrive. This model might seem unconventional, but it's booming in popularity: studies have shown that ghost kitchens are worth about $40 billion worldwide, making them one of the most valuable business models.

Ghost kitchens can also revitalize outdated business models. One famous example is Pasqually's Pizza: a Chuck E. Cheese ghost kitchen that operates exclusively through delivery apps. Chuck E. Cheese has also released a line of frozen pizzas to keep up with the times.

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What is a Food Hall?

A food hall is similar to a food court in that multiple restaurants operate booths in a single space. However, a food court in a mall offers chain restaurants that operate with defrosted meals. Food halls focus on locally-owned restaurants staffed by chefs and other restaurant experts. Instead of renting an entire dine-in space, they have a booth where customers place their orders.

Food halls typically offer a variety of cuisines and dishes. For example, a food hall could have a Korean restaurant that sells bibimbap, bulgogi, and kimchi. Food halls could have a few retail stores, but they mainly focus on artisanal restaurants. Most food halls offer an attractive design unlike the bland design of food courts in the mall.

The Factors That Make Ghost Kitchens Possible

Of course, dark kitchens, virtual kitchens, virtual restaurants, and ghost kitchens would not be possible without several technological and social factors. As diners continue to crave meals that can be delivered directly to their door, the importance of data-driven technologies becomes even more important. How these these factors will continue to shape the existence of ghost kitchens into the future remains to be seen.

Finding a Ghost Kitchen Near Me

It's undeniable that ghost kitchens have left their mark on the global restaurant industry, changing the way diners get food, and the way business owners think about preparing it. Most experts agree that ghost kitchens are here to stay, so if you're looking to tap into the trend for yourself, chances are you won't have much trouble. As the popularity of these dining hotspots continues to rise, more and more people are interested in getting involved.

If you're looking to get started on your own ghost kitchen, contact the Cuboh team for in-depth information on how to scale your operation.

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