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Tech roundup: This stat should give ghost kitchens a fright

Consumers throw some cold water on the online-only model. Also, BiteNinja makes its first acquisition and Chicago levels more accusations at Grubhub.
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Photo illustration by Nico Heins

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While perusing the National Restaurant Association’s State of the Restaurant Industry Report last week, a stat about ghost kitchens jumped out at me.

Nearly three-fourths of adults, according to the association, said it’s important that their food “comes from a restaurant, deli, or fast food place that has a physical location that’s accessible to the public.”

In other words, they want their restaurant meal from an actual restaurant, and not a ghost kitchen (or virtual brand) in the traditional sense. 

Spooky, right? 

Maybe a little. Most “ghost kitchens” these days, while focused on delivery and takeout, do technically fit the bill for what consumers say they want. Almost all of them have a walk-up area where guests can pick up online orders from established restaurant brands. Increasingly, they’re building storefronts and even offering some seating. They fit the rule of the question, if not the spirit.

The sentiment is more worrisome for virtual brands. By definition, they have no physical location of their own. They’re digital add-ons to existing restaurants that can use them to generate more revenue. Some customers have expressed feeling duped by the practice.

It’s just one stat. And it contradicts some other data I’ve seen, like Deloitte’s recent report that 80% of consumers said they’re likely to order from a ghost kitchen.

Nonetheless, it suggests that virtual brands might need to be a little more transparent with consumers about what they are. If not, they could send a lot of customers running for the nearest … restaurant.

Bite Ninja acquired digital menu company Zenu. Bite Ninja’s technology allows restaurants to remotely staff the drive-thru, and its prime objective in buying Zenu appears to be adding more tech expertise to its staff as it grows. "In the next few months, we will be piloting and onboarding Ninjas at restaurants nationwide," said Bite Ninja co-founder Will Clem in a statement. "Zenu's proprietary coding and overall knowledge of the restaurant space are the ideal way to keep our growth on-track.”

Zenu is the online ordering provider for Baby Jack’s BBQ, a small chain co-founded by Clem. 

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. It’s the first big move made by Bite Ninja after it raised $4 million in November.

Chicago added more accusations to its lawsuit against Grubhub.As you might recall, the city sued Grubhub and DoorDash in August for alleged deceptive business practices. Last week, it said its investigation into the companies uncovered more claims against Grubhub. The new accusations, filed in December but not publicized until Feb. 1, allege that Grubhub:

  • Charges restaurants for customer refunds that it issues without restaurants’ consent.
  • Advertises free online ordering, then charges customers fees on those orders.
  • Advertises that its Grubhub+ membership gives customers unlimited free delivery while still charging fees on orders.
  • Hides from consumers that in-app search results are based partly on fees paid by restaurants.

In a motion to dismiss the complaints, Grubhub called the new allegations “meritless” 

“As further demonstrated by this curiously-timed news release, [Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's] lawsuit is about publicity—not law—and does nothing to support Chicago's restaurants,” Grubhub said in a statement. “Her allegations remain categorically wrong, as we articulated in great detail in our response to the court last month.”

Chili’s opened its first urban ghost kitchen, in Manhattan. The chain is renting space in the new Kitchen United location on 38th Street, and execs said they’re encouraged by its performance after the first month. It’s offering Chili’s as well as the It’s Just Wings virtual brand for delivery and takeout. Ghost kitchens are part of the chain’s strategy to get into more dense urban markets.

Miso Robotics launched another crowd-funding round. After raising $50 million through a pair of recent rounds, the maker of robotic cook Flippy is looking to bring in another $40 million from small investors. It plans to use the money to meet product demand and add to its staff, which has tripled in size over the past year. The Pasadena, Calif.-based company is currently valued at $500 million. 

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