What started as a response to the in-person shutdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic quickly became the biggest restaurant trend of the last year – the ghost restaurant. While a virtual or "dark kitchen" wasn't unheard of before the pandemic, it wasn't something that many chefs focused on. However, both professionals in the culinary world and their customers quickly embraced the ghost restaurant concept.
What's next for this virtual kitchen trend? We're looking at expert opinions as well as the exciting future that in-home diners can expect to see over the next year.
Ghost kitchens are restaurants that sell through delivery only – no dine-in options.
They also don't have pick-up services; basically, no customers allowed in the building. They're also referred to as cloud kitchens, dark kitchens, and virtual kitchens. Some ghost restaurants utilize the existing kitchen area of a restaurant, while others are pop-up enterprises that offer something new to the market.
Customers order online through either a third-party delivery app or the restaurant's own website and delivery system and pay online. Having more delivery options besides pizza has been a boon for people stuck in quarantine for weeks or months.
Some chefs may run a couple of different ghost kitchen concepts out of the same kitchen, using the same staff, equipment, and crossover ingredients to create two entirely different cuisine concepts. For ghost kitchens that adapted their space from a dine-in restaurant, "double-dipping" allowed the chefs to be more creative,
For many customers, even with restaurants opening again, the changes required, such as limited party size, mask requirements, and mandates that parties from different households could not dine together, weren't worth the effort of going out.
Even in places that are mostly reopened to pre-covid operations, many customers have come to appreciate the convenience and selection that online ordering and delivery offers. Instead of agreeing on just one restaurant, now, everyone can order their own preference, and gatherings focus more on enjoying their time together than choosing a restaurant.
In fact, noted London chef Jamie Oliver had credited the rise of the virtual kitchen to the demise of his own in-person concepts. Food delivery services are one of the main reasons he cites for his restaurants closing. While many customers were happy to see their favorite local restaurants offering delivery services during the pandemic and looked forward to supporting them, it may be too late to turn back the restaurant trend of convenience.
Delivery service is more than just simply putting food in a box and driving to the customer. For ghost kitchens to be successful, operators must focus on maintaining the food quality in transit and timeliness of delivery, plus the "normal" restaurant costs such as labor and food costs.
Virtual kitchen operators may have had to change some items on their in-person menus or eliminate them altogether, as many items simply didn't travel well. Trial and error may be part of it, but expect to see chefs take a different approach to create their dishes to preserve food quality in transit.
Seamless ordering, from the customer to the kitchen, to the delivery driver, is another critical aspect of making a ghost kitchen successful. The easier it is for all these moving parts to communicate, the higher the accuracy in ordering and the quicker orders arrive to the customer. Finding the right third-party delivery service, or employing their own, will make a difference in online ordering success.
One benefit of dark kitchen operations is the reduced need for a comprehensive POS system.
Operators now just need a ticket printer for the kitchen stations, and since there's no in-person dining, the need for multiple server terminals and cash drawers is eliminated.
However, many traditional POS systems may not offer a ghost restaurant everything it needs to operate effectively, including not accepting popular virtual forms of payment, including payment apps, or Apple PAy or Google Pay. Choosing Software as a Service instead of investing tens of thousands of dollars into owning a POS can be a game-changer for ghost kitchens.
With up-to-date POS software purchased as a subscription instead of an outright purchase, operators can integrate their kitchen printers and receipt printers with their online ordering. This can ensure that no orders are lost, eliminating the step of receiving the order online and then re-typing it into the POS. With specialized technology, orders go straight from the customer to the kitchen.