They may sound spooky, but ghost kitchens would be more akin to Casper the Friendly Ghost and less like the creepy dead lady haunting your great aunt’s attic. In fact, ghost kitchens are simply a new way to capitalize on the proliferation of delivery service in the modern era. A ghost restaurant, or virtual kitchen, is a professional cooking facility where restaurants can prepare food for delivery-only meals. These venues house the necessary kitchen equipment for the preparation of restaurant-grade meals but have no actual dining area for walk-in customers. The boom of online food ordering has created a market for fast-service delivery meals without any in-person relationship. However, this is not to announce the end of the restaurant industry as we know it. Rather, virtual kitchens cater to a niche––though growing––demand for delivered meals.
There are a few different ways to operate ghost restaurants: a proprietor can manage a multi-establishment shared kitchen, or a single tenant can simply rent a prep space (essentially, a fully functioning restaurant without the dining area). Thus, in the age of Seamless, Postmates, and UberEats, ghost kitchens can be extremely lucrative. These establishments are not only taking advantage of the ongoing delivery trend, but they are also saving money on New York’s exorbitant rental costs since they only occupy the food prep space. Moreover, for multiple groups that share a single kitchen, they are getting the maximum return on the minimum amount of space, as well as eliminating the need for different decor or utensil sets. If you’re still curious, you can find more advantages and disadvantages to virtual kitchens here.
As you can imagine, this novel method of food service is exciting to some but terrifying to others. The virtual food prep formula has attracted many hungry investors who see the potential to dominate the delivery market. Just as intrigued, however, local New York City officials have turned their attention to this unfamiliar business model, seeking to ensure the phenomenon is not drastically hurting pre-existing, traditional establishments.
In early February, the NYC City Council met to discuss the potential impact of ghost restaurants. There is something sneaky about the way these kitchens operate as if they found a loophole in a universal rule and can get by without paying their dues. This is just speculation, of course, but this level of behind-the-scenes production seems unsustainable for the restaurant industry as a whole. Sure, the convenience factor is undeniable, but as fine food lovers and citizens of New York City, what do we want the future of dining to look like?
While they made no decisions on the issue, the New York City councilmembers are only just starting to look into the potential ramifications of virtual kitchens. Currently, no regulations or potential policies have been brought forth by the committee. Ghost restaurants will face scrutiny in the coming months, but there is no sign of them going anywhere quite yet.