While they may sound ominous, ghost kitchens are in vogue in the restaurant industry, and for good reason. This new form of restaurant began to gain popularity even before COVID-19, but ghost kitchens are now particularly relevant as many typical restaurant-goers are sticking to delivery for safety.

However, the end of the pandemic doesn’t spell the end of the ghost restaurant. Restaurant Business predicts that this model will outlast the pandemic as “sales via ghost restaurants from 300 facilities in the United States will rise by a projected 25% each year for the next 5 years—an estimated $300 million in yearly sales.” They’re poised to be a powerful force in the future of the restaurant scene, with Euromonitor estimating that they could be a $1 trillion industry by the year 2030.

What is a Ghost Kitchen?

Sometimes called dark kitchens or virtual kitchens, the concept of a ‘ghost kitchen’ refers to restaurants with only a kitchen space. These kitchens have virtually no physical storefront and have no indoor or outdoor seating. Instead, they operate entirely on delivery, sometimes also offering takeout or drive-thru pickup.

These ghost kitchens typically occupy smaller spaces than traditional restaurants and have a smaller staff as well. Since there is no physical storefront or branding that’s restaurant-specific, oftentimes different restaurants or brands make and provide food from the same kitchen location. This enables multiple restaurants to produce and deliver orders from the same space and even split operating and real estate costs.

History of Ghost Kitchens

Ghost kitchens are a relatively new innovation, but a few companies have stepped up to pave the way for their popularity.

The company Kitchen United has popularized a version of the ghost kitchen model in which multiple restaurants and cuisines exist under one roof, renting the kitchen space as they need it. The shared kitchen space company currently has locations in Austin, Los Angeles, New York City, and more. The Pasadena kitchen alone houses nearly 20 different concepts, so customers can order, say, halal food and Japanese food at the same time from the same reputable place.

McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A, alongside smaller, family-owned businesses, are also beginning to use ghost kitchens. More and more restaurants will adopt this virtual restaurant model as it continues to be popularized and its benefits become more clear.

What Makes Ghost Restaurants so Popular?

Restaurateurs and consumers might wonder why ghost kitchens, providing a seemingly impersonal experience, are taking off. There are several key reasons.

For Restauranteurs: Lower Operation Costs

It’s obvious why ghost kitchens have become popular—they help lower input and operation costs. Imagine focusing exclusively on food preparation in your restaurant. You would not have to worry about decorating or maintaining a storefront, furnishing a dining room, or paying a large waitstaff.

Primed to embrace innovation, ghost kitchen operators can cut costs by maximizing operational speed with technologies such as self-ordering kiosks, efficient POS systems, and easy-to-use kitchen display systems.

The façade doesn’t have to be pretty or even be in a prime location. Especially since less square footage is needed to accommodate just a kitchen, virtual restaurants can significantly slash real estate costs.

Lower operational costs not only mean more revenue, they mean lower prices for customers. Contactless delivery that leverages allows business owners to focus on providing a sole offering (delivery) in the most customer-friendly way possible.

For Customers: Ease

With their streamlined offerings, ghost kitchens offer a more efficient customer experience as well. Customers can order food from the virtual kitchen online in the comfort of their home and can rest assured that their order is being prepared by delivery experts.

If customers opt for pickup options, such as curbside ordering, the ease is maintained by the short lines and wait times that virtual kitchens offer. Instead of navigating through lines of people waiting for tables or trying to order, wait time is virtually non-existent as customers simply have to pick up their order after being notified it’s ready. For this reason, many ghost kitchens need food lockers to round out the streamlined customer experience.

Are There Any Drawbacks?

While ghost kitchens can offer immense benefits, there are some important things to keep in mind before jumping to open a virtual restaurant.

Delivered Food is Less Fresh

Delivery will never be able to match the freshness of having your order brought to your table directly from the kitchen. By eliminating the ability for customers to have this ‘straight from the grill’ experience, restaurant owners need to be conscious about making sure delivery doesn’t decrease food quality.

With no physical dining room in your restaurant, you absolutely need to monitor the little details as well. Devote more attention to packaging and delivery speed. Control the quality and consistency of the food you’re sending out. Ghost kitchens can’t afford to simply throw food in a box and send it out, hoping the dining experience will make up for any losses in satisfaction with delivery.

Delivery or pickup is the only way for customers to try food from these virtual kitchens – ingredient decisions, preparation temperatures, and packaging security need to be carefully considered to ensure customers aren’t left disappointed and wondering if the food would be better in person. Delivery times will also need to be monitored to ensure customers are consistently being provided with timely service and warm food.

No Immediate Customer Feedback

Typically, restaurant owners can interact with customers in person and gather feedback during these interactions. With a virtual restaurant, the opportunity for in-person interaction is eliminated.

This means you need to be intentional about gathering feedback and gauging customer satisfaction. Provide easy ways for customers to give online feedback about their orders, and pay attention to what they say!

The success of your ghost kitchen will depend entirely on your customers, so consider their needs and opinions. If you’re thinking of opening a ghost kitchen, consider if your customers value your food or the experience you offer more – only one of these answers is suitable to opening a ghost restaurant.

How to Market a Ghost Kitchen

With virtual restaurants, the only impression your customers get is just that: virtual. You’ll need to put effort into online branding, website development, and social media management.

Your customers will only know your restaurant virtually, so it’s vital to tell your story and clearly explain your mission online. If you fail to do these things, your restaurant will remain impersonal and unenticing, failing to stand out from other virtual restaurant offerings.

Even little details like logos and package colors should be considered, as the packaging of their order is often the only physical interaction customers will have with your ghost restaurant. A cohesive and creative brand will impress customers and keep you in the front of their mind, setting you apart from other ghost kitchens. At the end of the day, ghost kitchens are a big risk but attention to detail and some extra care can lead to huge rewards.

Conclusion: What to Expect from Ghost Kitchens Going Forward

It’s clear that ghost kitchens can be a huge innovator in cutting operation costs and offering a contactless experience. However, a virtual kitchen isn’t the best option for every kind of restaurant – especially experience-based ones – so it’s important to carefully consider their pros and cons before opening one yourself.

While the pandemic may have accelerated their growth, ghost kitchens are clearly here to stay. If this model is right for your restaurant, consider how to make your ghost restaurant stand out. What customized packaging can you offer? How can you ensure delivery service is timely and friendly? With the popularity of ghost restaurants on the rise, it’s important to be intentional about making yours stand out.