After fizzling in their first go-round a couple of years ago, ghost kitchens had recently been catching on among restaurant operations of all shapes and sizes, and are now the model of necessity for many operations dealing with dine-in bans amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also known as dark kitchens, the facilities are essentially commissaries, producing foods for delivery and catering in remote and less expensive areas where consumer traffic doesn’t matter. Customers typically never see the production centers, nevermind visit them, so seating, signage, bars, parking and all the usual restaurant amenities can be skipped. They are wholly kitchens, absent any frills.

A major difference of the ghost kitchens of today is scale. Instead of supplying one brand or operation with meals for delivery—as many past experiments had done—the kitchen is typically part of a multikitchen commissary providing space for an array of restaurants, whether brick-and-mortar or “virtual.” Warehouses of ghost kitchens are being developed by a number of new companies, including Kitchen United, CloudKitchens and Zuul Kitchens, as well as familiar players such as DoorDash, which last year opened its first DoorDash Kitchens in the Bay Area.

Facilities feeding virtual restaurants are often the kitchens of actual restaurants with production capacity to spare. About a dozen units of the Fatburger fast-casual chain, for instance, are producing wings marketed via delivery services’ apps under the brand name of a sister chain, Hurricane Grill & Wings. Fatburger sells its own wings, but the Hurricane name is more likely to come up when a consumer searches for wings on a delivery app.

In other instances, ghost kitchens are moving beyond delivery and catering. DoorDash Kitchens, for instance, also produces food for pickup. And the boom in off-premise business has convinced a wide variety of operations to similarly co-opt commissaries’ model and function as behind-the-scenes production facilities.

Instead of merely creating new restaurant concepts, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) is now hatching virtual operations consisting of a brand name, menu and kitchen managed by the famed Chicago multiconcept group. Fans of the Whole30 diet can’t visit an LEYE restaurant specializing in the items permitted under that weight loss plan, but they can order delivery of Whole30 selections produced in an LEYE facility sporting another name. 

Similarly, LEYE is producing foods sold exclusively for delivery under the brand name Bon Appetit, Delivered through a collaboration with Grubhub. The meals, made in accordance with recipes from Bon Appetit magazine, are produced by an underused kitchen in one of LEYE’s brick-and-mortar operations. 

The Famous Dave's full-service barbecue chain has similarly cited ghost kitchens as a key component of the brand's growth, as executives have explained to investors that the facilities are a more economical way to provide delivery and expand awareness of the brand. And Chick-fil-A has opened two of its own ghost kitchens, in Nashville and Louisville, Ky., while becoming a tenant of Kitchen United’s facilities. At least one of the chicken chain’s proprietary dark spaces is larger than a restaurant with seats, though both will produce orders exclusively for delivery and catering, without so much as a drive-thru to serve consumers directly.

Noncom connection:

Aramark last fall acquired Good Uncle, a commissary-based food delivery company centered around college campuses. The app-based service, which debuted in 2016, is currently available in seven cities in Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and Maryland. When placing an order, students choose from designated pickup spots on or near their campus, according to Good Uncle’s website, which notes an average delivery span of 26 minutes. Its offerings, which change biweekly, are centrally prepared and include pastas, salads, bowls and desserts, as well as weekend brunch items.