On any typical evening, it's easy to open a food delivery app, scroll through menus, and order a hot meal for delivery. It's fast, convenient, and affordable, making it a popular option for singles and families across the country. Though ordering delivery is second nature to us today, it wasn't always this way. Ghost kitchens evolved from the kitchens of the olden days through a natural progression. From Sumerian food carts and sidewalk cafes to modern restaurant kitchens and catering services, ghost kitchens are rooted in ancient dining tradition, developed and evolved with time, and perfected with technological ingenuity.
Ye Kitchens of Olde
Fast food has been around since mankind created cities. Since societies conceptualized the specialization of labor, fast and convenient food became a necessity. After all, workers couldn't build temples all day and worry about growing, harvesting, and cooking food. Restaurants in their earliest and most rustic forms were born out of necessity.
The cradle of civilization is in Mesopotamia, and evidence of their food culture is still intact today. Sumerians had access to as many as 800 foods, including 20 kinds of cheese and 300 types of bread as early as 1900BC. Early food carts delivered delicious foods to the working classes. These food stalls or carts were mankind's first restaurants.
Mankind refined and the dining experience rather quickly. Anthropologists discovered a well-preserved snack bar in the ruins of Pompeii, circa 79AD. It was painted with artwork worthy of the Sistine Chapel. Food carts in those times were more luxurious than most Michelin star restaurants.
The snack bars and food carts of antiquity were hardly what we'd consider restaurants today, though. In time, chairs and small tables were set up around simple kitchens to make outdoor style cafés that are still very popular in Mediterranean cultures today. From small café kitchens and mobile food carts, traditional restaurants were born.
The first restaurants were candle-lit, exclusive, and rather small. Most were connected to inns where travelers rested before carrying on. Indoor dining became more extravagant as mankind began to harness energy, develop machines, and collect more assets. Restaurants worthy of the Victorian Era cropped up in all major cities and recipes from kitchens in France, China, and beyond made their way to the American West.
Delivery to the Door
The first food delivery began with European royalty ordering pizza in the late 1800s. Delivering a pizza to the palace was an honor for any restauranteur, and the idea was ingenious. Traditionally, diners had to visit a sit-down restaurant for a hot meal, even if they were royalty. Eating at a public restaurant came with certain dangers, and it wasn't always possible to make a quick stop for brunch. The solution was for trusted local eateries to package meals and deliver them to the palace. Of course, this was time-consuming and expensive for restaurateurs, so delivery wasn't something that was offered for the common folk.
As unions helped raise wages and create a middle class, eating at restaurants became more popular and affordable. At the most popular establishments, tables filled quickly, essentially capping profitability based on seating capacity. Restaurant owners discovered that they could make more of a profit if they could fill their tables AND sell carry-out meals for those who either wanted to eat at home or couldn't get a table.
The convenience of takeout makes it a popular option for anyone, but it's especially good for young families with children who can't be counted on to behave in a restaurant. By the time McDonald's Corporation founded their flagship restaurant, society was ready for fast food. Drive-throughs boomed in popularity, and diners expect to get their meals hot, fresh, and in their hands in under five minutes.
Though we had drive-through fast food for half a century, until the late 1990s, only a few pizza places offered delivery. Pizza delivery was only available in certain neighborhoods in major cities, though it was clear there was a widespread demand for it from the start.
A New Era of Profitability
Restaurants are rarely super profitable. Dine-in style doesn't have enough turnover to sell enough food to make much money. When pizza places bought cars and started delivering, their profit margins boomed. However, most mom and pop diners couldn't afford to buy a delivery vehicle. It took about 20 years for a businessperson to solve the problem with the advent of food delivery apps.
Today, GrubHub, DoorDash, and UberEats are the three main apps used in the United States. 38 million Americans regularly use food delivery apps to fetch dinner instead of ordering carryout and picking it up. This change in delivery methods has made a major impact on the food industry, and it couldn't have happened at a better time.
When Covid-19 struck the United States, 110,000 restaurants permanently closed down within six months. Tens of thousands more followed suit since that time. The most successful restaurants right now are cloud kitchens.
Ghost kitchens, cloud kitchens, or virtual kitchens, use delivery apps to gain customers. Delivery apps advertise on behalf of ghost kitchen companies as part of their business models. Ghost kitchens need delivery apps to survive, and vice versa. The businesses which are thriving through the pandemic are using a multiple kitchen concept where each kitchen cooks the food for the menus of several businesses. Ghost kitchen concepts cut costs by eliminating seating capacity, wait staff, support staff, and the need for expensive storefronts. These businesses need only a commercial kitchen and a few parking spaces for delivery vehicles.
Virtual dining has revolutionized the food industry at a time when it is being destroyed by pandemic regulations and social distancing. Ghost kitchens can make triple or quadruple the profit of a traditional restaurant without the headache of dealing with the public.
Though millions of Americans yearn for the experience of a traditional restaurant, dining the old way simply isn't possible until the pandemic is over. Ghost kitchens have evolved out of necessity and are born of the last of the toughest restaurants around. In time, traditional dining will return, but on what scale, no one knows. Until then, we'll keep reaching for our smartphones and dialing up dinner.