From Ghost Kitchens to Living Kitchens: A New Vision for Food Service’s Next Great Space

Ghost kitchens, you’ve got spirit, but not much soul. Dark kitchens or virtual kitchens––real places staffed with non-ectoplasmic people—bring efficiencies to running a restaurant by providing off-site commissary services for delivery orders. Ghost kitchens have been critical to enabling take-out meals during the current pandemic and are predicted to be central in restaurant operations moving forward. For that reason, they must become more livable.

Why are they effective right now? With dining rooms emptying out, downtown rents increasing, and autonomous delivery right over the horizon, many operators are wondering if that Main Street location is really worth the spend. It might not be. Growth for most, after all, isn’t walking through the front door, it’s coming in online. 

If your cooks are mostly fulfilling off-site orders, you can do away with niceties like a slick front of house, visual merchandising, and a location with hungry walk-ins. Without these pricey anchors dragging down your profitability, you just might be able to focus on making food, and not making rent.

Not up for opening your own off-site kitchen? Plenty of services exist to take care of the tricky parts. Reef offers instant scale: By dropping commissary kitchen pods into parking lots across the country, a restaurant can purchase national reach overnight. Kitchen United rents space by the month, so instead of spending the next year setting up shop, you can be cooking in 30 days.

Cheap rent, and leases you can walk away from? Ghost kitchens, you may have outsourced overhead and streamlined operations, but you can do so much more to help food service tackle its most existential challenge: great places that people are proud to work and dine at. To get started, we need to define a new vision for Living kitchens.

Better Work: Make Off-Site Kitchen Jobs the Very Best Job in Food Service

Kitchen workers usually cede the better qualities of a space to customers: Back of house isn’t known for its natural light, ergonomics, or general comfort. Such things come with a price tag, and with margins already thin, those resources are typically deployed elsewhere to acquire new business. But in a ghost kitchen, employees are the customer. Managing high turnover, training new hires, and maintaining morale are known issues in food service. Moving to an entirely new model, designed with employees at the center, is a true opportunity for restaurants to flip the script. Living kitchens should provide:

  • Sunshine, and views of nature. It’s the top request of American workers and is shown to increase productivity. Without a dining room blocking the way, let there be light.
  • Proper break space and a place to study, train, or eat. Front of house tables and chairs are often “borrowed” off-peak for these purposes today. Instead, create an area just for employees with the same level of hospitality you’d show a diner. 
  • Clear career paths upwards and onwards. Nobody wants to work in a shipping container forever. Where the model produces savings, put them into pay and benefits.

Better Food: Create a Platform for Making New and Better Food, Not Just More Food

Many restaurants suffer from oversized menus, saddled with too-many items to appease a broad clientele and diverse geography. (Chili’s understood the importance of slimming down and focusing their menu.) Any changes require updated signage, print-outs, even new cooking equipment. In a remote kitchen, customers (mostly) interact via digital ordering tools, so the concept is free to change more fluidly. Off-site facilities can be larger than a typical commercial kitchen, with many brands and stations sharing the same space. Living kitchens should:

  • Cross-pollinate for new techniques and tastes. Others have compared shared kitchens to coworking setups, but that’s not quite right. The magic of coworking spaces isn’t in the mix, it’s in the mixing. Create opportunities for collaboration and sharing.
  • Bulk-order fresh and local foods. Small farms and producers struggle with distribution, so use scale to lock in better prices and fewer drop-offs that benefit everybody.
  • Create new foods that are designed to travel. With every order destined to travel some distance, Living Kitchens can be a laboratory for packaging, technique, and ingredients that are ready for take-out.

Better Kitchens: Iterate the Engine

Limited space and capital means that once you’ve built out your traditional commercial kitchen, it’s likely to stay that way until the equipment breaks down and warrants replacing. Even if you do swap out individual pieces, fixed walls and utilities constrain layout options. Today, concepts evolve, kitchens do not. With pooled facilities and a bit more elbow room, off-site locations can support adaptation. Living kitchens should:

  • Enable dynamic layouts. With extra space, flexible hookups, and everything on wheels or in the ceiling, kitchens could change as the restaurant does, or even be reconfigured to meet different day parts.
  • Create a connected kitchen. Invest in tech to understand how each machine is performing, and how it’s being used to limit energy use, increase food safety, and drive down food waste.
  • Create a launchpad for new delivery modes—literally. Dronestubesbots: how our food will be delivered is changing as well, and the handoff from cook to carrier must be reimagined.

If you’re a restaurant operator trying to decide if an off-site kitchen is right for you, the answer is probably yes. Whether you build your own or subscribe to an existing service depends on your need for control and appetite for risk. Off-site locations may manage delivery orders better than your traditional kitchen, and if you can brighten their dusky corners, create an opportunity for you to retain superlative staff and send out innovative and delicious new food. 

Remote kitchens are just part of the recipe—like e-commerce, online orders are great for repeat tickets, but when acquiring a new customer, brick-and-mortar retains its high value. Pop-ups, food trucks, even a regular old restaurant, these are the critical first taste to have diners coming back for more. With a Living kitchen in the mix, you can be sure they don’t leave hungry.