By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
Just what is a ghost kitchen anyway?
This term refers to a commercial kitchen that is used for delivery food only and isn’t connected to a brick and mortar brand. A ghost kitchen can often be used for more than one concept or by more than one brand.
Not to be confused with a commissary kitchen, in which food is prepped in a (typically) centralized location for distribution and sale in a brand’s commercial locations.
And though ghost kitchens have existed in some form or another for decades, they are more prevalent now than ever.
Founded in 2012, Blue Apron has seen incredible success with the pre-prepped, cook at home meal delivery concept. Since their inception in 2012, the number of meals they’ve delivered is in the neighborhood of 20 million. A similar meal prep company based out of Berlin Germany, Hello Fresh delivers meals to several countries in North America and Europe.
They make sense. After all, how often you either hear someone say, or think to yourself “who has time to shop and cook anymore?”
They inherently eliminate one key aspect of the commercial restaurant, which is the social interaction factor. And unfortunately, they now have more competition than they probably ever imagined.
I say unfortunately not because these two companies literally have more competition, but rather because their new competition comes to them by way of thousands of restaurants across America duplicating this concept in order to stay alive, or they have been financially reduced to only being able to provide their product to the consumer this way.
But a question my colleges and I have asked, is are these ghost kitchens our future?
It is being reported that over 60 percent of restaurants in Los Angeles will not reopen after being forced to close in 2020. To me, statistics like this often need vetting, but I don’t believe it could be that far off, given what I know about our industry and California’s restrictions.
Closer to home, not everyone in the Gallatin Valley survived 2020, including one of my personal favorite restaurants in town, Saffron Table. My friend Roth, managing partner of Montana Ale Works, tell me he has had many sleepless nights, wondering if they could keep their lights on going forward—an unthinkable question for what has been a Bozeman institution since 1999 and unofficially, Montana’s highest-grossing restaurant.
From Bozeman to Los Angeles, all across the country, thousands of restaurants have been forced to move to this concept or close up shop altogether. Few things make me sadder in an industry I have bled, sweated and cried with for decades.
How many chefs figuratively weep when they put their culinary creations meant for beautiful plates and serving vessels, dishes that are temperature and time sensitive, into Styrofoam, cardboard or plastic? Only to have the recipient eat said dish sometimes up to an hour later and judge this chef and restaurants product as only being “fine” when it was never meant for this application in the first place.
And all the while, these hardworking businesses are simply trying to keep their doors open.
Though not entirely accurate, the term ghost kitchen also goes by many other names, such as virtual kitchen, delivery-only restaurants, commissary kitchens, dark kitchens and shadow kitchens. And unfortunately, I fear shadow kitchen may turn out to be the most accurate name, given that many restaurants across America have already become shadows of their former selves.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the multi-concept culinary director for a Bozeman based restaurant group.