Is Your Ghost Kitchen Haunted by Food Safety Breaches?

The restaurant industry is still dealing with pandemic-related issues, including supply chain disruptions, new COVID variants and surging cases, labor shortages, rising prices, and a shift in consumer demand. As a result, ghost kitchens, delivery-focused kitchens without a storefront or dining area, are growing in popularity. Ghost kitchens allow operators to utilize commercial kitchens – sometimes in shared spaces with other brands – without the overhead of a full restaurant space and staff.  

The National Retail Federation called ghost kitchens a $43 billion industry, and Hospitality Technology predicts that number will rise to $71.4 billion by 2027. Everyone from small concepts to large chains, like Wendy’s, Applebee’s, and Cracker Barrel, are turning to ghost kitchens amid the ongoing pandemic. 

The cost of running a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant is high, and many restaurants are losing significant in-house dining business amid the ongoing pandemic. Traditional restaurants – with their huge overhead costs – just aren’t built for high delivery demand. As 60 percent of American consumers order takeout or delivery at least once a week, and online ordering is growing 300 percent faster than in-house dining, many smart operators have pivoted, using ghost kitchens to adapt to these new trends.

However, the same challenges arise in ghost kitchens’ quality assurance and food safety protocols that plague the traditional restaurant kitchen.  Food businesses should take a fresh look at some traditional kitchen challenges that may even be amplified in ghost kitchen settings: 

  • Be transparent. Food safety practices used to happen “behind the scenes,” as guests assumed restaurants were taking proper safety precautions. Now, thanks to COVID, everyone’s watching and demanding safer practices. Make food safety and customer reassurance a priority to create a brand that customers (and employees) trust and support. 
  • Promote your safe practices on social media. While ghost kitchens must abide by food safety regulations, it’s not easy for customers to see whether these facilities are compliant. Customers can’t access health inspection letter grades for ghost kitchens like they can at traditional restaurants, which often display proof of inspection in their windows or dining areas. Therefore, post your health inspection reports on your website and social media platforms. Make it obvious that you follow safe food practices to encourage additional trust from your guests during these exceptional times. 
  • Commit to ongoing training. All workers must be trained in food safety, not just upon hiring, but throughout their tenure. Use tech tools to provide regular training and send small “chunks” of information right to employees’ phones. Train employees on food safety protocols, as well as additional COVID cleaning and safety practices.
  • Audit differently. Traditionally, restaurants had third-party auditors come onsite to inspect their facilities. COVID changed that. Now, food businesses – including ghost kitchens – are creating a culture of collaboration and development by changing their audit processes. Audits can feel punitive and make teams feel disconnected from their supervisors, but by creating a collaborative model for audits, where the team takes part in the process, you can build a culture of excellence and safety.
  • Utilize digital tools. Tech tools make it easy to access information, analyze data, and adopt proper quality and safety behaviors. Your digital solutions should enable continuous learning and enhance safety and quality. Tech solutions can elevate food safety checklists and audits, track ingredient lists and allergen information, and help staff manage food safety processes, quickly, easily, and accurately.
  • Continue focusing on food safety. Focus on food safety protocols, like cooking to proper temps, storing foods properly, not cross-contaminating, etc. And follow new COVID protocols: frequent sanitation of high-touch areas, frequent hand washing, social distancing, and masking. Ensure that every employee adheres to these rules. Remember: you’re only as strong as your weakest link.
  • Check all equipment. Be sure coolers and other equipment are working properly. It’s wise to install digital sensors to alert the team if a refrigerator or freezer door is accidentally left open, or if temperatures drop below a certain level. Thermometers should be calibrated at the beginning of each shift.
  • Make sure food comes from safe sources. Be aware of your vendors’ food safety policies and only work with partners that adhere to the strictest safety and quality standards. Use software solutions to manage supplier certifications. 
  • Be knowledgeable about food allergies. Designate an allergy-friendly prep area where foods can be prepared without the risk of contamination from allergens, such as peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, egg, sesame, wheat, etc. Be sure you use clean and sanitized utensils to prepare allergy-friendly foods and put allergy-friendly meals in separate containers for delivery. Train your staff about accommodating food allergies and have someone knowledgeable carefully oversee meal prep (and answer questions) for food-allergic customers.
  • Deliver foods safely. Delivery-only concepts must consider how to keep foods safe from their kitchen to their customers’ homes. Ensure that your drivers have equipment to keep foods at proper temperatures – hot foods hot, cold foods cold – during delivery. Drivers should also sanitize their hands frequently, including after they touch doorknobs, doorbells, money, etc.