Image via Unsplash.

While maybe not quite the norm yet, ghost kitchens have become one of the most important trends in the restaurant business in 2019. And these days, the concept — restaurant kitchens with no front of house that exist primarily to help fulfill delivery orders — looks to be turning into less of a trend and more of a normal part of doing business for restaurants.

In the last few months alone, Kitchen United has expanded at a blazing clip and everyone from Starbucks to Uber is launching their own take on the ghost kitchen. Then this week, Zuul Kitchens will launch a 5,000-square-foot ghost kitchen facility in New York City that will help Sweetgreen, Junzi, and other notable chains further grow their delivery footprint.

Restaurants have good reason to invest in the concept: by 2020, over half of restaurant spending will be off-premises. As restaurant chains and third-party delivery services scramble to meet that demand, the ghost kitchen has so far proven to be the most scalable, economically feasible solution.

The Zuul launch, in particular, is noteworthy because NYC is poised to become one of the key settings in which ghost kitchens will compete for dominance. Kitchen United has the Big Apple listed on its website as slated for a location in 2019, and just today, The Spoon received news that the Halal Guys — a delivery pioneer who happens to rent space in Kitchen United’s Pasadena, CA location — has opened its own delivery-only kitchen in Astoria, NY.

I suspect the move will have a ripple effect on other chains that can afford to do the same, which will create a new layer of competition between kitchen providers and restaurants in the coming months.

Send in the (Food Delivery) Bots

Meanwhile, all that food being prepped in ghost kitchens could soon arrive at your door courtesy of a delivery bot. Of late, nearly autonomous rover bots have grabbed many a headline: Starship raised a $40 million Series A round in August as well as expanded its presence to more college campuses. Kiwi will unleash its li’l rover bots on Sacramento, CA streets this month. And at the end of last week, my colleague Chris Albrect reported on a four-wheeled bot called CarriRo, which Japanese robotics company ZMP developed and wants to use for food deliveries.

I doubt these delivery bots will put delivery couriers out of business anytime soon, though, when it comes to most major cities in the U.S. There are still numerous local and state laws that have to be put in place before wheeled bots can be released en masse onto city streets. Even then, many cities lack the sidewalks, densely packed populations, and concentrated areas of restaurants that are ideally suited to these creatures milling about. The more likely scenario would be rover bots such as those from Starship and Kiwi having a large presence at universities — something that’s already happening — and other campus-like settings. For multi-lane roads and longer travel distances, though, we’ll see more driverless cars a la Nuro, and possibly drones.

Can Robots Save High Turnover Rates at Restaurants?

If all this outsourcing and autonomy sounds a bit scary for restaurant food workers, consider a new statistic: fast food restaurants typically lose more than 100 percent of its workers in a year.

So says a new report from CNBC, which Chris looked at in-depth over the weekend, producing a litany of reasons why turnover at restaurants is so high, including disposable, routinized jobs, low pay, lack of career path, and the rise of the gig economy, which enables more flexible schedules for workers.

But this turnover is also providing an opportunity for robotics companies to bring their creations to market to take over some of those more repetitive, menial tasks, whether it’s flipping burgers (Creator), making airport lattes (Cafe X) or telling customers when their orders are ready (Brightloom).

The question is whether robots taking these jobs will actually do what is promised, which is to create more meaningful employment with better upward mobility for workers, which will in turn entice them to stick around longer. That won’t be the case in QSRs, where work is largely made up of mundane, repetitive tasks and human jobs disappearing is pretty much a foregone conclusion. But in other types restaurants, we could see robots actually improving servers’ jobs by freeing up their time to focus on meaningful interactions with guests. At this point, that’s still something a bot can’t replace.

Until next time,

Jenn

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