The pandemic upended lives, disrupted industries, and had seismic impacts on global culture. On one hand, we saw the downfall of live sporting events and concerts, but on the other hand, it gave rise to unique companies like Zoom. In the restaurant industry, a similar phenomenon occurred in the way of Ghost Kitchens. What started as a way for shuttered eateries to generate more profit during COVID has quickly grown into the brightest frontier of food service that may be worth 1 trillion dollars by 2030 (Beckett, 2020).
The term Ghost Kitchens can refer to two concepts. On one hand, your typical local restaurant may operate more than one restaurant on delivery apps under pseudonyms to increase their orders and revenue. Another example is delivery-only kitchens like Reef Kitchens and Cloud Kitchens which offer shared kitchen spaces out of which multiple food concepts operate and deliver. Ghost kitchens are predicted to hold a 50 percent share of the drive-thru and takeaway food service markets worldwide, respectively, by 2030. (Statista, 2023)
Since its genesis in 2019, Reef Kitchens operates more than 5,000 delivery-only kitchens in major cities across the U.S. While they started before the pandemic, Reef gained popularity due to decreased restaurant revenues and increased food delivery demand during COVID. Reef doesn’t cook food, construct menus, or acquire ingredients. They simply lease kitchen space, partner with local brands to offer “tasting menus” of a city’s staples, and work with delivery companies to expedite orders.
I live in the South Loop of Chicago, and one of my favorite childhood restaurants, Pita Heaven, recently partnered with Reef and became delivery-only. I had the opportunity to speak with a manager there and they shared that their “revenue during COVID had grown way beyond pre-pandemic levels, so they continued the partnership” (Pita Heaven, ‘23). While good for local business owners, one downside is the disappearance of customer-facing restaurant experiences and the jobs entailed within. There’s no longer a host, a cashier, nor a server at Pita Heaven; only a very busy kitchen and an order pickup station. I spoke with Simon Schwartz, a student at Walter Payton, and he enjoys the availability and selection offered by All Day Kitchens, another Chicago concept that offers a few dishes from different Chicago restaurants, delivery-only, until 2 AM.
These restaurants have their pros and cons. On the one hand, they offer increased revenue for restaurateurs and customer delivery options. On the other hand, they threaten the in-person dining experience and those employed to serve customers at restaurants. In fact, Reef has had to close some of their satellite kitchens due to permitting, licensing issues, and the recent economic slowdown. I can’t say whether they are good or bad for the industry, but it is clear that ghost kitchens (for now) are here to stay.