Ghost Kitchen Glossary Definitions
The restaurant business is a lingo-heavy industry. I can’t quite tell whether that comes from the business’s tendency to draw in… odd individuals, or if it’s the fact that we’re constantly under assault from the universally-hated ticket machine, but it’s a fact of the job. Any newbie in a kitchen is sure to be inundated with an absurd amount of new terms (often in multiple different languages), alongside acronyms and folksy little names for already rather simple snacks.
Whether you’re an oven-fresh culinary school greenhorn or a grizzled industry veteran, restaurant work has taught me one thing - love them or hate them, chefs need lists. So I took it upon myself to write out a few vital terms to keep lodged in the back of your brain until the most inopportune time to suddenly remember them. Yeah, you can thank me later.
“A commercial cooking facility used for the preparation of food consumed off the premises.”
Okay, so first things first, we need to establish something that’s going to be a common theme across each definition. I’m going to be using the dictionary definition of most of these terms, but the issue with that will be quite clear if you’ve ever stepped foot into a professional kitchen - chefs don’t like things like concrete definitions or reading (okay, I jest… mostly.) The truth of the matter is that each of these definitions can and likely will vary kitchen-to-kitchen.
With that said, let’s talk about in-practice definitions. At their basest description, ghost kitchens are simply to-go only joints with no internal space for customers to drink or dine. They’re often based in smaller, less desirably-placed commercial or host kitchens (more on that below). This accomplishes a number of things:
- Cuts overhead for the restaurant owner, allowing them to focus on food. No Front of House (FoH) means no servers, waitresses, hosts, and bartenders to pay, and more space for actual cooking.
- Allows for creativity. Those who’ve worked in traditional brick-and-mortar joints will know that customers demand consistency, rather than innovation (more often than not). This means that menus can stagnate, chefs get bored, and food quality drops. A ghost kitchen doesn’t have this struggle.
- Their lack of a lobby, dining area, or bar means that space can be used differently. What once would have needed to be a dining room can now be a dough rolling station, fryer pit, or just about anything else your salty heart can imagine. This allows flexibility not only in what a single kitchen can offer but in what they’re able to do when at full capacity - which is much higher than your average brick-and-mortar.
A virtual restaurant is based out of a pre-existing location and creates a to-go-only menu. Not to be confused with a ghost kitchen, which rents space to serve to-go meals.
And I know what you’re thinking - no, this isn’t some sort of weird NFT food-art community. It’s not holographic, animated, or any other form of digital “food” - it’s a kitchen that operates quite similarly to a ghost kitchen, with one exception.
Your first time learning the difference between a ghost, host, and virtual kitchen/restaurant can be overwhelming. They all seem strangely similar, though people often specify that they are, indeed, different entities.
At the end of the day, the truth of the matter is that ghost kitchens and virtual kitchens/restaurants are differentiated by one key factor - ghost kitchens rent space, while virtual kitchens already have the space.
Host kitchens are brick-and-mortar locations that rent space to one or more virtual kitchen(s).
In practice, the actual location can vary quite widely. Often, you’ll see host kitchens popping up in off-season catering facilities, hotels with excessive kitchen space, or traditional restaurants. While when and how long these host kitchens are in use can vary massively, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:
- Host kitchens generally provide space for a virtual restaurant, alongside the tools of the trade - a walk-in fridge/freezer, various food processors and tools, and actual cooking space. Generally, this leaves the virtual restaurant responsible for their staff, ordering, and overhead for food (with some exceptions, mentioned below).
- Some host kitchens offer (obviously for more money) a fully staffed kitchen and access to their in-house order management system and delivery service(s). This is clearly not always how things go, but it is an option, depending on the location and host kitchen.
Popular ghost kitchen providers include:
A standalone building or section of a larger building that hosts multiple restaurants, often with small kitchen footprints and shared seating.
And once again, we’ve run into one of those situations where I find myself saying, “Well yes, but actually no.” This dictionary definition misses a few key details - the largest of which is that food halls are, for all intents and purposes, gentrified food courts.
Think back to the last time you popped into a small, unique hall and found that there were a handful (or even a dozen or more) of small “indie” kitchens. The food was great, right? This is because you generally can’t find corporate/chain joints in food halls - they’re all, usually, local creations.
Take this renovated church in Springfield, Oregon (of all places) for example! Inside, you would find an Indian/Latin fusion restaurant alongside the local Fisherman’s Market, Hawaiian grill, Poki grill, German folk joint, and (of course) the local pizza spot. And they all share a shockingly small space to great success!
Order Management Software:
A type of software designed to bring all orders from a number of channels into a single space that, in theory, makes taking and tracking orders easier.
This is a complicated way of saying that this is a computer program that congregates all of your restaurant’s orders into a single place. They’re designed to help solve the issue of tablet hell (more on that below), and generally do so with some success. Their best application is for businesses that make use of multiple third-party ordering/delivery services such as DoorDash, GrubHub, or UberEats.
The one major caveat for this is that order management software/platforms (OMP/S) really can’t be designed to work universally with all of the PoS systems out there. In practice, this means that someone needs to take all of the orders that print out and re-enter them into the in-house POS. Though this is (clearly) something that Cuboh is hard at work remedying.
The term for the chaos that ensues when orders roll in from all three of your third-party delivery apps (each on separate tablets) alongside your own store’s regular rush. Think “in the weeds,” but glowed up for the 21st century.
As mentioned in the OMP/S section, you’ll generally need a separate tablet for each third-party delivery service you have, alongside your OMP/S tablet. This can lead to both FoH and back of house (BoH) quickly being weeded.
At the end of the day, tablet hell is something that every professional in this industry has dealt with at some point in the past ~8 years or so since third-party delivery popped off. In the early years of this (at least in my restaurant), every Friday and Saturday night meant that for the three rush hours of our busiest nights meant we needed to devote a server to exclusively rewriting/entering orders. This cost the business wages, the customers’ fast service, and put the kitchen in a tight spot.
So what’s the answer to this? Order management platforms. At the very least, we would have seen the server re-enter everything into the PoS and then get back to helping customers in-house, rather than being stuck for 2-3 hours by the phone and tablet station.
Inventory Management Software:
A type of software designed to help restaurants manage ingredient stores, place new orders, and track recipes and menu costs. It’s the 21st century equivalent of the sous chef.
Middle kitchen management beware! Inventory management software is out to steal your job!
Okay, while that’s a joke, it does have a tinge of truth. In past decades (“back in my day…”), middle management chefs such as sous chefs or kitchen managers would have devoted a large portion (25-50%) of their time to simply managing inventory. They would primarily check how well-stocked all of the produce is, order what’s needed, pack it all away, and do the pain-staking math of menu costs.
Nowadays, that’s been delegated to software. And it’s genuinely one of the best things I’ve experienced while running a kitchen. It frees up those CIA (Culinary Institute of America, not the guys responsible for MKUltra) graduates you hired to do what they’re there for - create and make delicious, one-of-a-kind food.
Mise en Place:
The process of preparing all parts of the meal you’ll need before beginning. French, literally translated to “everything in its place.”
In the famous words of Anthony Bourdain, patron saint of kitchens across the globe, “Mise en place is the religion of all good line cooks.”
It’s an extremely simple practice with a broad-reaching, almost militarily-organized manner of thinking. While it’s primarily used in cooking to essentially ensure that you’re ready for anything that may come, it’s starting to get used in other fields, such as psychology. And for good reason - it has served me well in every aspect of my life to date.
At the end of the day, this mindset applies to every aspect of your life. Prepare, create a routine, and muscle memory and practice will ensure things go smoothly. There is a reason that a concrete demonstration of mise en place is a key factor in most modern stages - more on that below.
Pronounced (Stah-ghe); The French traditional, and entirely outdated, practice of unpaid labor (often a full shift of 8+ hours) as a form of work interview in restaurants.
This is a controversial topic, for what I can only assume are pretty clear reasons at this point. A stage, in restaurants, is essentially a working interview. Potential hires are generally asked to bring their own tools (knives) and demonstrate that they can work in a kitchen.
Depending on the joint, those that stage are often asked to prep various foods (to demonstrate knife skills and a basic grasp on concepts like mother sauces) and work a couple of stations during a rush. In recent years, this practice has come under fire for the same reason as unpaid internships - it’s the 21st century, and we’re at the point where it’s been clearly established that labor equals pay, period.
Nonetheless, it’s very common to find famous chefs using stages as a combination of free labor and a way to “give experience” to culinary aspirationals.