As an old saying goes, “Anything can happen, and most usually does.”
And it sure did happen in 2020 for the restaurant industry. Pandemic. Dining room shutdowns. Permanent closures at alarming rates. A seismic shift to takeout and delivery formats. More shutdowns. Complete uncertainty over the state of indoor dining coupled with growing panic over the state of the independent restaurant.
Personally, I think it’s foolhardy to try and meaningfully condense what happened to restaurants in 2020 into a few hundred words. So as we close out this dumpster-fire of a year and head to 2021, I’ll pinpoint one part of the biz that’s been talked of constantly these last several months: ghost kitchens.
Right around the end of 2019, we were already fixated on the ghost kitchen. In a predictions piece I wrote at the time, I said, “This is part of the restaurant industry that will change rapidly over the next year as it becomes more commonplace among both restaurants and consumers.”
All that wound up being true in 2020, not because I’m some predictions wizard but because a global health crisis forced the restaurant industry into off-premises formats like takeout, delivery, and drive-thru. Because these formats don’t require a dining room to function, they are inherently suited to the ghost kitchen setting. Ghost kitchens, after all, were designed to serve to-go customers, typically those ordering through mobile apps and other digital properties.
But one thing that was made clear in 2020: ghost kitchens are not the end-all, be-all savior of the restaurant industry. In fact, throughout the year, multiple restaurant industry figures raised questions about the commissary model in particular.
Back in March, when COVID numbers were initially rising, former Kitchen United CEO Jim Collins cautioned restaurants to think hard about whether their business generated enough demand to justify the cost of a ghost kitchen operation. Similarly, Andy Wiederhorn CEO of Fat Brands, said in July that ghost kitchens “simply work better for brands that have existing fanbases” (a point he repeated at our ghost kitchen event earlier this month).
I bring up these reservations not to further cast a cynical shadow but to illustrate another important takeaway from 2020: that because there are still so many uncertainties for restaurants over the traditional commissary model, other forms of the ghost kitchen concept have emerged that make running an off-premises business more feasible for more types of restaurants.
Over the last year, we saw the growing popularity of the so-called “dark kitchens.” These are underutilized kitchen spaces restaurants are using to fulfill their delivery and off-premises orders. Fat Brands is one notable example of a company using its own restaurants as dark kitchens for sister brands. Ordermark/NextBite, meanwhile, built out its business this year of pairing restaurants with unused kitchen space in order to deliver (literally and metaphorically) more meals from virtual restaurant concepts. Another great example is Hi Neighbor, a San Francisco restaurant group that had to close because of the pandemic. Its response was to use one of its shuttered kitchens to accept and fulfill delivery orders for its own virtual concepts. Hi Neighbor is just one local example of a trend happening nationwide.
In the second half of 2020 (right after Euromonitor predicted the ghost kitchen market would be worth $1 trillion by 2030), we saw massive amounts of investment dollars flow into the space, from Zuul’s $9 million fundraise to a $120 million investment in the aforementioned Ordermark to the $700 million raised by Reef. There were plenty of other financial milestones in between those figures.
Alongside those investments, even more formats emerged of what a ghost kitchen might look like and how it could become more efficient. ClusterTruck, which has operated a vertically integrated delivery business for years, teamed up with Kroger to turn the latter’s deli counters into a kind of ghost kitchen. More recently, Crave Collective opened in Boise, Idaho to show us what a fine-dining take on a ghost kitchen looks like. And the QSRs, finally got onboard, with everyone from Chipotle to McDonald’s unveiling new store formats that minimize or eradicate the dining room and are in effect their own version of a ghost kitchen.
The most unanimous takeaway of the year was this: the ghost kitchen, in its various forms, is here to stay. We may be inching closer to a widespread vaccine for COVID, but the restaurant industry has already completed the shift to off-premises-centric businesses. There’s no going back at this point.
Even so, we leave 2020 and enter 2021 with plenty more questions when it comes to how one best runs a ghost kitchen. What is the role of the chef — an artist, by rights — in this off-premise-centric new world? How long will ghost kitchen operations be tied to third-party delivery services increasingly bent on calling the shots for restaurants? What about the mounds and mounds of packaging waste being generated by all this innovation?
If 2020 was a year about making the ghost kitchen more efficient, 2021 should be about the role the ghost kitchen plays when it comes to the restaurants, chefs, drivers, and other people whose livelihoods are now tied to it.