If you’ve been reading the Cuboh blog for any amount of time, you know that we’re massive fans of both virtual brands and ghost kitchens. While they’re pretty similar at the end of the day, each has its own needs compared to traditional brick-and-mortar joints. As such, they require specific layouts to function efficiently. So today, we’re putting on our designer hats and planning virtual kitchens!
Let’s not waste time and just get into the fun bits, shall we?
Let’s start with the simple stuff - what will you need for a virtual kitchen to function correctly? There are a few types of virtual kitchens that you’ll encounter based on where you live and what your plans are, and each will have different needs.
First off, let’s break down the various types of virtual kitchens.
This particular setup, essentially a brick-and-mortar restaurant with closed doors, is the most common style we saw in the early stages of the pandemic. It’s generally the simplest to set up and is favored by old-school restaurant owners.
Most old-school owners favor this setup because it’s the most familiar; there are no tablets, no online ordering system, and usually, they’ll operate out of a pickup window. But crucially, these aren’t “real” virtual kitchens. They’re to-go only physical restaurants with limited phone ordering.
And that means you’ll need to rework your business plan pretty much from the ground up, assuming you planned on running it like a “normal” restaurant. You’ll need to plan for altered inventory costs, lower (or nonexistent) Front of House presence, and redesign the actual commercial kitchen layout to accommodate your needs.
Think of companies like Dominos (or any other big-name pizza joint, for that matter) - they generally discourage dining in. Their whole thing is that they offer lightning-fast delivery and pickup for one particular thing - pizza. Granted, most services (including Domino’s) in the same boat have developed a broader menu consisting of wings and pasta, but the idea remains the same.
This is our second type of virtual kitchen layout - it essentially boils down to multiple “brands” belonging to a single overall owner. In our Domino’s example, for instance, they have a pasta brand, wing brand, pizza & bread brand, and the mother company owns each.
These virtual kitchens work best for restauranteurs who want to do many things in a single virtual kitchen layout. You won’t be able to focus on a single style of food, but you’ll have a broad appeal and hopefully will build recognition for each as time continues. Avoid these if you’re working on limited financing or have a particular vision for your restaurant.
This is an increasingly popular form of virtual kitchen. It’s essentially the college roommate situation, but with business space. You and one or two other brands share the same room and equipment but focus on different styles of food.
While this is an excellent way to cut costs, it comes at the expense of needing a few things:
You and your suitemates can’t operate in the same space simultaneously. As such, you’ll need to plan out who gets the kitchen and when carefully.
Many commercial kitchens solve this by simply scheduling out space weeks (or months) in advance - and you can do that, too!
Because you’re sharing a single kitchen with multiple concepts, you’ll both be limited on how much space you can take up. You won’t be able to bring in all your specialty gear (especially things like a commercial Hobart) if your suitemates also have equipment to store.
This is less of an issue than with traditional restaurants, but if you and a suitemate (or multiple) each sell fried chicken, you compete with each other. However, if handled correctly, this can allow each business to help the other out and share success across businesses.
At the end of the day, shared kitchens can and will succeed, assuming you and your suitemates can communicate.
And finally, we make it to a common sight in the restaurant industry these days - commissary kitchens. While they go by many names, they all boil down to one thing. Anyone can rent space in them, use the kitchen, and it’s rarely limited to one brand.
You’ll often find that central production kitchens are favored by people with very focused menus - food trucks, private chefs, and (yes) ghost kitchen operators. Central production kitchens are excellent for those who already have space to send out deliveries and pick up from but don’t have the required kitchen space. If, however, you already have kitchen space, a commissary kitchen is likely not for you.
Now, onto the truly entertaining bit - layouts!
Let’s start with a handy-dandy checklist. Any layout you opt for is going to require a few things to be effective, whether you’re trying to rent out kitchen space to ghost kitchen operators or are an operator yourself:
Take a peek at the things listed below and write them down. They’ll come in handy, I promise.
In other words, plan for multiple styles of food to be cooked to maximize success.
No matter your needs, every kitchen needs a few things - food processors, countertop mixers, knives, and mandolins; you know, the usual.
You need hoods, anti-fire (Ansul) systems, and proper air conditioning in any kitchen. It’s also worth noting that a good virtual kitchen (or any kitchen for that matter) will need multiple floor drains for mopping and spills, as well as a grease trap.
And obviously, a quality dishwashing station (preferably automated rather than manual) is vital to ensuring you can operate without the health department scribbling furious notes behind your back.
Always plan to have more space than you need. You want excessive refrigeration and freezing space, too much dry storage, and obscene amounts of prep space.
Unlike a traditional restaurant, you won’t need salad/sandwich low boys for refrigeration. You aren’t selling and plating in-house, so low boys can mostly go out the (proverbial) window.
(Please don’t literally throw your low boys out of a window; not only is it dangerous, but it’s generally considered uncool.)
In other words, both virtual and ghost kitchens live and die by delivery orders. This means you’ll need a space separate from the prep area where you can take, process, and package orders.
It’s also a good idea to include a centralized office area that can overlook multiple suites. This allows restauranteurs and managers room to do their thing while the cooks do what they do best.
You need a broad range of space to work in a kitchen. Have multiple stainless steel prep tables of varying sizes between 1-2 feet and as large as 6+ feet. Remember that you could have everything from a whole hog being broken down to cooks batching out hundreds of pounds of pizza dough here, and you don’t want to limit the cooks on space.
Something that’s often forgotten in kitchen layouts is the sinks. You need dedicated handwashing sinks,* multiple prep sinks with ample space, and at least one sink with an eye washing station in the case of chemical issues.
You’ll also need a dedicated space to store, fill, and dump your mop and mopwater.
*(Note - plural sinks, not one sink.)
All kitchens need a few things - salt, fat, acid, and heat. Heat is the most important thing to plan for when setting up a ghost kitchen layout for multiple clients. In other words, you’ll need numerous ranges (either gas or electric), at least one high-capacity oven, and (likely) a fryer or two.
Salt, fat, and acid are all things clients can handle but also can be readily stocked as universal staples. Things like vinegar, salt, and butter are all things you’d expect in any kitchen, and a ghost or virtual kitchen is no different.
In short, though, there are a few key things that every ghost or virtual kitchen needs to be effective:
At the end of the day, when setting up a virtual kitchen layout (either for yourself or a client), it’s a great idea just to stop and think for a second. What would you expect in a professional-grade kitchen? Would you be okay operating without a handwashing sink, out-of-date hoods and Ansul systems, or near-nonexistent prep space? No - you’d want the best of the best!
After all, getting a virtual brand off the ground can cost upwards of $20,000. The average rent for a commercial kitchen ranges between $15-30 an hour, totaling just under $15,000 a year without accounting for labor, inventory, and equipment costs! Consider what you want in a kitchen, and find a layout made by a like-minded designer.
If you need more advice, take a peek at our top tips for creating an efficient ghost kitchen.