"Ghost kitchens" are popping up everywhere, but there's no need to be alarmed — they're not spooky at all.
As the pandemic has lingered, more restaurant groups are turning to ghost kitchens to churn out the food customers want while also tackling difficulties including safety, labor shortages, and rising costs. The latest to jump on the trend is mall owner Simon Property Group, which has teamed up with Kitchen United to bring the ghost kitchen concept to its 195 malls nationwide.
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Kitchen United is set to turn the malls' food courts, which have been ailing for years, into one-app ghost kitchens for efficient ordering, delivery, and pickup. The program is called Grab Go Eat, and it includes ordering kiosks and drop-off points in the mall and even a drive-thru area for quicker pickup. It will be tested soon at malls in Los Angeles and Long Island, with plans to roll it out to all malls if all goes well.
Inspire Brands, the parent company of Arby's, Buffalo Wild Wings, Jimmy John's, Sonic, and other popular chains, opened Alliance Kitchen, a one-stop-shop for five of its brands, in Atlanta last year. Like other ghost kitchens, the brands all share the same segmented kitchen facilities, and customers can order from the restaurants' apps or third-party delivery services like DoorDash. There is no dine-in option, so when the food is ready, it's either delivered or it can be picked up from a contactless, automat-like wall of food pods.
Plenty of other established brands have already launched ghost kitchens. Walmart is rolling out ghost kitchen counters — the restaurant's name is called Ghost Kitchens, coincidentally — that offer dozens of fast-food brands in one in-store location. And when chicken wing prices soared, WingStop decided to launch ThighStop, a ghost kitchen that sells cheaper chicken thighs.
New restaurateurs are wading into the ghost kitchen waters as well, to mixed success. One of the most infamous is MrBeast Burger, a delivery-only virtual restaurant launched by a YouTube star. Its initial launch created a 20-mile-long line of cars, and though it gets mixed reviews, it has hundreds of locations less than a year after it opened.
Not every ghost kitchen will be successful long term, but the concept is likely here to stay. By using a shared kitchen and cross-training employees across brands, Inspire Brands estimates that it will reduce labor needs by 54%, equipment costs by 45%, and energy consumption by 50% compared with five stand-alone restaurants. Sustainability and cost savings like that are why many experts say ghost kitchens are the restaurant concept of the future, even post-pandemic.