These concepts go by a number of names (dark kitchens, cloud kitchens) and formats (from single, stand-alone units to large, multibrand facilities), but the basic idea is the same: kitchens that prepare food for delivery only (and sometimes takeout). Potential benefits of the model include the ability to enter a new market with lower upfront investment, an additional revenue stream or a place to offload excess delivery volume from existing restaurants.
Common attributes of ghost kitchens include scaled-down, modular kitchens and a reliance on third-party delivery drivers to fulfill orders. This allows restaurants to keep staffing to a minimum and focus strictly on preparing the meals. Orders typically flow through a restaurant’s website or app or third-party delivery platforms, though some ghost kitchens do accept walk-up customers.
The efficient kitchen
Few restaurants saw a need to produce everything on their menus after orders slowed to a trickle and back of house staffs were cut to a cook or two—and often managers with limited prep skills at that. That, in turn, provided an opportunity during the pandemic to re-diagram how the kitchen should work for maximum efficiency, starting with nearly a blank whiteboard. “Our teams have done an incredible job of reimagining almost every aspect of their business through this,” Gene Lee, CEO of Olive Garden parent Darden Restaurants, told investors. The economies in food and labor widened the margins of Olive Garden and sister concept LongHorn Steakhouses to 22.1% and 15.1%, respectively. It was far from alone in using menu retraction as the catalyst for rethinking operations.MORE ON EFFICIENT KITCHENS
A couple of years ago, when operators began to realize the true power of off-premise business, many of them began making over their kitchens to create room for digital-only makelines. These focused areas allow operators to push through orders for pickup and delivery, without jamming up the efficiency for on-premise traffic. Chipotle Mexican Grill, for example, was an early adopter of the digital makeline. The high-tech lines feature LCD screens to highlight which ingredients to add to each order. In July, the fast casual reported the digital makelines bring in average unit volumes of more than $1 million per year.More on digital makelines
The Kitchen as Filming Studio
With limited dine-in business allowed, chefs are reaching out to customers through video cook-alongs, recipe demos and virtual wine and food tastings. Smartphone videos may be adequate, but for best quality, a tripod, enhanced lighting and a camera-ready cooking equipment are essential. Some restaurants are finding it’s worth it to invest in professional video equipment and lighting. A kitchen that doubles as a filming area can also be a benefit if taping a local or national TV segment or cooking show, since most TV studios aren’t allowing outsiders in. These remote segments are here to stay.MORE ON FILMING
Technology is becoming smarter and more affordable, resulting in kitchens that are increasingly automated. Innovations range from robotic fry cooks like Miso’s Flippy to fully automated, stand-alone pizza machines like Piestro, but also include less obvious advances such as the latest combi ovens or software that automates inventory or labeling. Supporters tout automation’s ability to save labor, make kitchens more efficient and reduce human contact—a key concern during the pandemic.
The Home Kitchen
Out-of-work chefs are not sitting idly by while their restaurants are closed or they were furloughed. Instead, they’re selling directly to customers or in retail outlets, turning their home kitchens into production centers for catering operations, baked goods or food products.MORE ON Home Kitchens
When is a restaurant brand not quite a restaurant brand? When it’s a virtual concept—one that only exists in the digital realm. A large number of restaurants, from independents to mega-chains such as Chili’s (It’s Just Wings), Applebee’s (Neighborhood Wings by Applebee’s) and Chuck E. Cheese (Pasqually’s Pizza), have launched virtual brands amid the pandemic, expanding their portfolios—and SEO-friendly offerings—with limited additions to their ingredient inventories. Virtual brands can be a fairly pain-free to boost sales, but operators say it can also be a challenge to market a brand that has no brick-and-mortar footprint.More on virtual kitchens
Mobile kitchens can be temporary kitchens set up for special events, or they can be food trucks or pop-up restaurants started by entrepreneurs who may not have all the funds, or desire, to open a stand-alone brick-and-mortar shop. In reality, mobile kitchens have been around for centuries, but they’ve become more popular in recent years as food trucks became popular lunch spots. These food trucks and neighborhood pop-ups have become more important during a pandemic that has led to the closure of dine-in service.
The Catering Kitchen
Catering has clearly been a casualty of the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped restaurants from brainstorming how they’ll ride the upswing as business meetings shift off Zoom and at-home parties resume in full. After all, conditions have changed monumentally since February, when a boom in demand for large off-premise orders was already straining kitchens designed to produce meals solely for dine-in customers. Factor in the explosion of takeout and delivery business during the pandemic, and many operations realize they’ll lack the capacity to keep up if catering roars back. One solution has been opening their own catering kitchens, the facilities dedicated caterers use to crank out meals for a remote wedding reception or graduation party. By shifting big orders to those no-frills centers, concepts hope to spare their restaurant kitchens from burnout. Plus, the kitchens can be outfitted with equipment that’d be overkill for producing two entrees at a time.
A commissary kitchen is a central kitchen used by multiple concepts for food storage and preparation. A number of chains will use commissary kitchens to prepare certain ingredients or items that are then transported to their locations. Food trucks, mobile kitchens, entrepreneurial food businesses or other smaller operations can also rent space in a commissary kitchen, where they have access to storage and larger pieces of equipment. The commissary kitchen can be used either by one concept or by multiple concepts.