Starbucks has made a number of moves this year that highlight how delivery is a major priority for its foreseeable future. In January, the company expanded its Uber Eats pilot across the U.S. and said it would add five more cities over the rest of 2019. More recently, Starbucks widened its delivery program in China to over 1,000 Starbucks stores.

For the China program, it seems the coffee giant has been using ghost kitchens to fulfill orders — a move that, if successful, could set a standard for Starbucks delivery operations in the U.S.

Starbucks confirmed to Nation’s Restaurant News that it is testing these ghost kitchens via a partnership with Alibaba in the latter’s Hema supermarket locations. “Starbucks is the first retail brand to establish dedicated back-of-house kitchens, Star Kitchens, within Alibaba’s Hema supermarkets in China,” a Starbucks representative told NRN.

Ghost kitchens, which have no front of house, are primarily used for fulfilling delivery orders. And as restaurants large and small struggle to find both physical space and extra employees to process and execute on the rapidly rising delivery order count, these ghost kitchens are becoming a more and more obvious solution to the problem. With the world’s largest population, China makes sense as a testing ground for these ghost kitchens, since cities in that country are densely packed and Starbucks locations are smaller and can only accommodate so many extra bodies and equipment.

It could also be an ideal setting for a high-volume coffee retailer like Starbucks because it would remove the burden of fulfilling delivery orders from in-store employees and give them more time to focus on getting the customers in front of them or at the drive-thru window. Employees both in-store and in ghost kitchens would also be able to move more orders at a faster pace, which in theory at least would lead to happier customers on both fronts.

If the program is a success, it’s easy to see a similar operation landing in places like NYC, Boston, or San Francisco, where real estate is also limited and where the population continues growing.

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