Halloween aside, COVID-19 has our economy spooked and it’s been an especially scary time for many business owners.

But there’s good news: many businesses are finding success by changing course quickly – pivoting to increase efficiencies, launching new concepts and altering “what’s always worked” to adjust to the new environment.

Among restaurant chains and independent restaurant owners, we’re seeing accelerated plans around ghost kitchen concepts. Commercial commissary kitchens have been around for years, and restaurants that were considering the idea before coronavirus have sped up their plans due to the unprecedented increase in off-premise business.

What is a Ghost Kitchen?  

You’ve heard the term, but what actually is a ghost kitchen?

First, it’s a kitchen with many names – a ghost kitchen is also called a cloud kitchen, a shared kitchen, a dark kitchen, a delivery kitchen, a shadow kitchen, a virtual kitchen and a kitchen as a service (KaaS).

So what is it, really? A ghost kitchen is a commercial kitchen designed for delivery only or delivery and takeout. It can also serve as a true commissary for catering or to supply partially baked or prepped food items to nearby kitchens.

Imagine a full restaurant kitchen with coolers, ovens, ranges and more minus the dining room… the back of the house without the front of the house.

Ghost kitchens can appear in several forms – three of the most popular are renting space from a larger facility, building out your own or moving into an existing yet vacant kitchen. We’ve seen some resourceful restaurant owners create entirely new virtual restaurants out of their existing commercial kitchen… they might invest in a few new tools or do a small amount of retrofitting and then boom a brand-new restaurant – with a fresh revenue stream – is born.

Who should use a ghost kitchen?

Would a ghost kitchen be a fit for you? It depends on several variables. Here are some questions to ask yourself… How quickly do you need to be up and running? Would you rather share space and costs with others, or do you need full control over your kitchen? What hours will you need the kitchen? What type of menu are you going for? What real estate is available?

The ghost kitchen model makes sense for:

  • First-timers: If you don’t yet have a physical restaurant, and you’re looking to test out a potential concept or two, renting out a mini-kitchen from a larger shared space would be a great option for you. The startup costs are affordable, the commitment is minimal, and if you need to change course you can do so easily.
  • Restaurants (or food trucks) looking to expand: If you have at least a single location or a food truck but want to increase your reach, a ghost kitchen might be the right fit. You have an established brand, locals are familiar with your craft, and you’ve probably considered expanding around town. Before you do, try a ghost kitchen in or around the neighborhood you’re thinking of moving into. You can get a sense of the needs of the community and test your brand’s presence in the area before you decide if you should fully invest. Right now you can find vacant restaurant spaces at an affordable rent that you can utilize as a test, with minimal upfront investment.
  • Established chains: For well-known chains, a ghost kitchen allows for virtual expansion of an already beloved brand. We have built numerous commissary kitchens for popular fast-casual chains that utilize the hub and spoke model – a central kitchen preps food and then that food is distributed to their storefront locations. The companies found it helped save on staffing, ensured quality and increased efficiency.

Ghost Kitchen Construction Considerations

Whatever direction you go in, here are a few construction considerations to think about:

  • Infrastructure and Layout – While in theory you can set up almost anywhere, your commercial kitchen will have specific utility requirements. You’re going to need more power and water than a retail or warehouse space requires, so while a vacant store in a shopping mall or a larger standalone facility might appear to be an affordable option, plan for an increased overall expenditure due to infrastructure upgrades including gas and power lines, plumbing, duct work, fire suppression systems, ventilation, hood systems and more.
  • Efficiency and equipment – For the virtual concept, you’ll want to spend most of your planning time thinking through the food prep flow, so you are using your space in the most efficient manner possible. If possible, simplify your menu and limit the steps each meal requires so you can maximize your equipment and your space. Your preparation here and the way your kitchen flows will play a huge role in the success of this endeavor.
  • Easy pickup – Whether you are partnering with third-party delivery companies (DoorDash, Grubhub, etc.) or allowing customers to pickup their meal, make sure you have an area for just that purpose. A pickup window will work for some, others will want a counter area.
  • Plenty of parking – Be sure the space has plenty of parking near the pickup area especially to account for mealtime rush periods.
  • Cleanable surfaces – The rules of a restaurant kitchen still apply- you want cleanable surfaces, whether you’re sharing the space or cleaning between shifts. There’s a big difference between easy-to-clean sealed paint or FRP (fiber reinforced plastic) and porous surfaces that get dirty easily.
  • Build an Office – Make sure your space has an office area to handle the paperwork that comes along with restaurant management. Even in a ghost kitchen, you’ll need a space to do business.
  • Location, location and yes still location – Believe it or not, location still matters for your ghost kitchen. While you can comfortably set up off the beaten track, pickups and the quality of delivery will suffer if you are too far away from your target market. An industrial space will come at a more affordable cost but keep the distance of deliveries in mind. A former restaurant that is currently vacant, close to residences and offices, might be a better fit.
  • Zoning, Building Codes and Licensing – As you’re scoping out locations, you’ll need to be sure a ghost kitchen is allowed under the zoning in the area and that it complies with licensing requirements. If it’s a former restaurant space, this should be easier, but if the original space was designed for retail, you’ll of course want to ensure a commercial kitchen is permitted and then build according to the local building codes.

Food Rules: Narrowing Your Focus

Your focus narrows for a ghost kitchen model – it’s all about the food. You’ll spend time thinking through your supply chain, your process, quality at delivery and other food-related aspects. Atmosphere and other elements of the dining process are no longer of concern.

If you’re even thinking about building a ghost kitchen or retrofitting a space, we always suggest bringing a general contractor that specializes in restaurants and commercial kitchens to visit the site before you sign the lease. That way you’ll have a better sense of what the buildout will require to make the space usable for your needs.

The Future of Restaurants

While most of us haven’t seen an environment like this in our lifetimes, we firmly believe the desire to share a meal with friends and family in a restaurant atmosphere will not go away. Might we need larger footprints in the future to space out guests? More drive-thrus and pickup windows?  Possibly. But for now, the demand for restaurant-quality takeout meals isn’t going away anytime soon. While restaurant owners are anxious to get back to the hospitality aspect of the business, there is no question the current landscape requires some creative solutions. And creativity knows no bounds.