The Ghost Kitchen: The Ultimate Guide to Getting Started

Since the surge in popularity for online orders during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, you've likely heard the term "ghost kitchen." If not, then perhaps you've heard of dark kitchens, virtual kitchens, or cloud kitchens. They all take on the same basic business model. But what is a ghost kitchen? Essentially, it's an alternative to the typical brick-and-mortar restaurant and kitchen setup. Rather than having a full dining room where customers make in-person orders for food and beverages, a virtual restaurant like this is simply a kitchen that focuses exclusively on online orders. They typically just provide food deliveries, but some ghost kitchen companies may choose to let customers pick up takeout orders from the location.

These kitchens are a relatively new concept, but despite this, they're changing the restaurant industry for good in the United States and beyond. Even though lockdown restrictions have decreased in many areas, meaning that restaurant chains can continue somewhat normal operations, the demand for delivery orders isn't decreasing. In fact, it's the opposite, considering that 60 percent of consumers place online food orders for delivery or takeout at least once a week, and 31 percent use third-party delivery services to get food from their favorite restaurants twice a week or more. The coronavirus affected demand in virtually every type of business, but restaurant owners have had to face some of the biggest adjustments of all, and it looks like ghost kitchens are here to stay.

Traditional restaurants aren't really geared for delivery in the first place, and the costs of running a brick-and-mortar restaurant are currently too high for many entrepreneurs in a time of uncertain demand. Fortunately, a ghost kitchen is a great solution that offers a commercial kitchen, typically with prime real estate, in a high-demand area. Many of these kitchen spaces operate similarly to a commissary kitchen as well, meaning the owner of the space has already equipped it with most of the appliances and materials that a restaurateur will need. You may just need to purchase a few specialization items, depending on what kind of restaurant brand you're trying to start (sandwich shop, salads and vegetarian store, burgers and fries shop, fine cuisine, etc.). If you're an aspiring restaurant owner looking to open your first ghost kitchen, here are some essential tips to ensure you get started on the right foot.

Optimize your menu for online orders.

If you've run your own kitchen in the past, then you or your chef may be used to a menu that's worked in the past. When it comes to a kitchen without a traditional storefront, however, you'll need to treat it like a new restaurant. A new shadow kitchen without a typical brick-and-mortar location will need a new menu to exclusively support online food ordering. There are several great ways you can optimize your online menu for your new ghost kitchen model, and it starts with choosing items that can be made quickly in your restaurant kitchen and that make sense for delivery.

For example, would you want to risk transferring standard menu items that could get soggy during a delivery, desserts that could melt, or food that may otherwise not keep well? The answer should be an emphatic "no," so you may need to come up with new menu items to replace these in your ghost kitchen facility. Alternatively, you could simply cut these items off the menu, since you'll likely be downsizing it anyway. It's generally considered best to keep a maximum of around 20 menu items on your existing restaurant website or on food delivery apps. This helps you keep from overwhelming customers, and it also makes things easier for your kitchen staff, since they'll be able to get used to making limited menu items quickly, and your kitchen will have seamless production.

You'll want to take high-quality photos of your items as well, so customers will know exactly what they're getting. In addition to improving your menu, these photos can also be shared on your social media channels to boost your online presence. If you plan to offer customizations for menu items in your delivery kitchen, then you'll need to make sure that customization options are displayed clearly, along with their prices, so customers can easily order their food just the way they like it.

Use a centralized point of sale system.

It's hard to overstate the importance of a reliable restaurant POS system. Not only does a POS system simplify the ordering process by collecting orders from your restaurant website, any online ordering system, and even third-party delivery mobile apps, but it also saves your staff from having to enter each order manually. This process is both time-consuming and can easily increase your operational costs.

Your POS system also collects customer data and sales data, and with detailed analytics, you can see which items are selling well and which ones need to be reconsidered. With a real-time source for customer data, restaurant operators can also easily determine who their best patrons are and make them special offers for discounts or coupons, further encouraging customer loyalty. Managing all orders in a centralized location like this keeps your kitchen running efficiently and makes it easy to explore options for greater customer service.

Speaking of managing orders all in one place, the best online ordering system is the only way to aggregate delivery apps like Grubhub, DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Postmates on a single tablet or device. You can integrate this ordering system with your POS as well, so order tickets can be created automatically, and confusion will be eliminated. Using technology this way also makes it easier to track increases in demand, so you'll have a better idea of when you'll need to scale your ghost kitchen to keep up with additional orders.

Work on your branding.

Once your ghost kitchen is properly equipped to handle orders efficiently, you can start working more on your virtual brand. The restaurant industry in the U.S. is extremely competitive, and if you want to run a successful ghost kitchen brand, you'll need to find ways to stand out from the competition. As already mentioned, you can share your best menu items and stories on social media, but it's also a good idea to improve your presence on popular business aggregates like Yelp and Google My Business. With a free account, you can create a business profile that shows your kitchen and food delivery service in the best light, and with full contact information displayed, you'll be more likely to rank in local searches on mobile devices when customers are searching for somewhere to eat.

You can even use your containers and packaging to further reinforce your brand in customers' minds. This can be as simple as including your logo or color scheme on custom packaging, or you can take things a step further by embracing sustainable packaging options, which have become extremely popular for environmentally conscious customers. Recyclable, reusable, and compostable packaging methods help reduce waste, are environmentally friendly, and are often cheaper to use in the long run. They're a great low-cost way to impress customers, stand out from competitors, and improve your bottom line in your ghost kitchen.

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