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a ghost kitchen industry cheat sheet
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The ghost kitchen industry cheat sheet is a summary of the major players in the ghost kitchen industry. Use it for a quick catch-up or refresher — or to display an astounding familiarity with this exciting niche business at your next office shindig.
👻 ghost kitchens
All Day Kitchens: a true hub-and-spoke. Licensed menus and brands prepped in a central “hub” kitchen and distributed to multiple “spoke” kitchens within a given market for broad reach. No major partnerships yet, but some major backers (Andreesen Horowitz) and two markets (SF & CHI).
CEO: Ken Chong
Years operating: 3
Differentiator: True hub and spoke model for full market (sigh) penetration. Both licenses brands and rents out kitchen space.
C3 by SBE: “Creating Culinary Communities.” Seriously. It’s the official name of the company. Ghost and host kitchens by SBE, for SBE. All in-house virtual brands (Krispy Rice, Sam’s Crispy Chicken) operated out of traditional restaurant brands such as Katsuya & Umami Burger as well as full ghost kitchens. Has an ordering app called “GO by Citizens.” No, for real, that’s what it’s actually called. Who keeps letting these guys name things?
CEO: Sam Nazarian
Years operating: 2
Differentiator: Owns and operates all their own brands. No partners required.
Cloud Kitchens: biggest kitchens (20-40 per location). Owned & run by Uber/uber-billionaire Travis Kalanick. Traditional model. Proprietary order management & tech platform (Otter). Suspiciously low pricing.
CEO: Travis Kalanick
Years operating: 5
Differentiator: Large locations stuffed w/ kitchens (30+). Pilots and operates many own virtual brands alongside restaurant partners.
Deliveroo: The biggest delivery company in the world — but not the biggest ghost kitchen company. Deliveroo offers both third-party delivery ordering and logistics as well as “Editions” delivery kitchens (called “dark kitchens” in the UK, another unfortunate moniker). It established both the delivery and kitchen model that everyone else has been trying to copy for years (particularly Doordash).
CEO: William Shu
Fundraising: $1.7B (Public)
Years operating: 9
Differentiator: Possibly the largest food deliverer in the world (outside of China). Also one of the only operators of both a delivery provider and ghost kitchens.
Ghost Kitchen Brands: brand operator/licensor for brands w/o hot line requirements. Customers can order from multiple brands in one go (like KU). Struck a big deal with Walmart (that’s why it’s listed). Canadian!
CEO: George Kottas
Years operating: ??
Differentiator: From Canada! Flexible footprint model. Ideal for cold or quick-prep (no-hot line) concepts.
Kitchen United: nominal industry leader and consistent voice in the space. Traditional model (leases kitchens to restaurants). Provides deep insights and robust support for partners. Proprietary tech platform that enables combining items from multiple restaurants in one cart/pickup/delivery.
CEO: Michael Montagano
Years operating: 4
Differentiator: Veteran operator and innovator in ghost kitchens. Big emphasis on location selection and support of restaurant partners.
REEF Technology: formerly ParkJockey (a parking lot owner/operator). Overall REEF Tech is a real estate tech play, aiming to create a smarter, all-encompassing neighborhood solution powered by multiple REEF products & systems. Their ghost kitchen arm is basically: kitchens in trailers in parking lots. REEF licenses brands and menus, staffs all the staff, and cooks all the cooking. Popular with major chains and virtual brand purveyors.
CEO: Ari Ojalvo
Years operating: 4
Differentiator: Cheap. Everywhere. They do the work, the restaurant just sells the brand and menu.
Rebel Foods: The OG (Original Ghost) kitchen. Rebel began as a single facility in India with the idea that multiple restaurants under one roof, sharing overhead costs and doing only delivery (through Zomato, Uber Eats, Foodpanda, and Swiggy) was a cheaper and more practical way to do restaurants, especially in massive metropoles with little real estate and a big, fast-paced, digitally-savvy customer base. Rebel now owns and operates all its own brands, with 350 kitchens across 6 countries.
CEO: Jaydeep Barman
Years operating: 10
Differentiator: Owner/operator of the original ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants. Market dominance in India, expanding in Middle East.
🚚 third-party delivery
These companies take orders through apps and get the food from the restaurant to the customer. Once upon a time (3-4 years ago) they had differentiated, competitive offerings and vied for market share. Today, for all intents and purposes, they are the same, just with slightly greater or lesser market penetration per city and vaster or slightly less vast bankrolls. Their supply of brands is also nearly identical — if you find a restaurant on one platform, it is most likely on the others as well.
Doordash / Caviar: The biggest and the baddest. I mean that pretty literally. Doordash dabbles in innovation and other business lines (such as its ghost kitchen) but is either moving cautiously, glacially, and/or without enthusiasm for them. Caviar once set itself apart by curating its platform to only the smarmiest restaurants but now, under Doordash and sharing its tech platform, they take pretty much everyone. As the $$$-face of the industry, Doordash is frequently in the news with regards to its gig labor structure.
CEO: Tony Xu (founder)
Fundraising: $2.5B (Public)
Years operating: 9
Differentiator: It’s bigger and more everywhere.
Uber Eats / Postmates: For worse or for worse, there’s not one corner of the gig economy that Uber will leave untouched. Uber Eats’ main claim to fame nowadays is that it’s connected to the greater Uber platform — so if you’re a die-hard Ubie then your digital life stays all in one place. Postmates was formerly the 4th and smallest member of the Big 4 in food delivery, now pretty much relegated to a half-remembered mention in the conversation.
CEO: Dara Khosrowshahi (Uber CEO)
Fundraising: $25.2B (Public, all Uber fundraising)
Years operating: 7.5 (Postmates: 10)
Differentiator: It’s all in the Uber family. Postmates is sorta-kinda more friendly to local restaurants, in the way that you and I are more friendly to that person we just have to put up with at work. Oh, hey, yeah what’s good Steve? Nice, no yeah, that’s really cool dude. Haha catch you later…ugh, Steve.
Grubhub / Just Eat/Takeaway: The former leader that behaves like a former leader: bitterly and jealously. Grubhub was the first major third-party delivery company in the US and held its leadership until Doordash rocketed to the top in 2019 on the wings of practically-unlimited Softbank funding. Grubhub was acquired in 2020 by European conglomerate, Deliveroo competitor, and indecisive-company-namer Just Eat/Takeaway. As of yet, there are no plans to rename the company Just Eat/Takeaway.com/Grubhub.
CEO: Matt Maloney (founder)
Years operating: 17(!!!)
Differentiator: Grizzled. Hardened. Been around the block. First to go public. International second fiddle. Weird interface.
📱➡️🖥 order management systems (OMSs)
These software providers funnel orders from multiple inbound channels — mainly the disparate third-party delivery platforms — into one (theoretically) easy-peasy tablet. In reality, the biggest boon of these platforms is their ability to aggregate the order data for later reference, with an honorable mention to the humble, helpful ticket printer that they provide. Their supposed all-in-one tablets, however, still sit right next to all the other ones from Doordash, Chownow, etc.
Chowly: A popular OMS…honestly, there’s not much else that’s super remarkable here.
Ordermark: An indie OMS started by Alex Canter of the legendary Canter’s Deli in LA.
Otter: Cloud’s OMS that comes with some strings attached (namely, injecting your restaurant’s data directly into Travis Kalanick’s throbbing veins).
🧑💻 point-of-sale (POS) platforms
These platforms are the backbone, the central nervous system, the…uh, plasma(?) of the modern restaurant. They mostly process in-house (and sometimes online) orders and funnel them to the kitchen, then store that data for management and accounting.
Square: A POS that’s ubiquitous across coffee shops, food trucks, pop-ups, and small retail stores for its flexibility and easy (if glitchy) functionality.
Toast: A Google-owned, recently-in-vogue POS that comes with an online ordering system and integration with Doordash.
🖥🚚 online ordering
Exactly what it sounds like — a basic thing for retail for a number of years, but until last year (2020), not exactly a basic thing for most restaurants. The now nearly-universal adoption of some kind of online ordering method by restaurants is just one more externality of a globetrotting viral contagion.
Chownow: The online ordering platform for mom-and-pops. Big giant restaurants need not apply.
Lunchbox.io: The edgy new(ish) kid on the block (just take a look at their website). Online ordering & marketing all-in-one.
Olo: The online ordering platform for big giant restaurants. Mom-and-pops need not apply.
💻 cyber restaurants- all right all right, virtual restaurants
It’s just that “cyber” is so much cooler. These are restaurants whose brand and menu exist pretty much exclusively online (though there is some wiggle room depending on where they’re operating).
Absolute Brands: The umbrella group of Dog Haus and virtual brands like Bad Mutha Clucka, Bad Ass Breakfast Burritos and Big Belly Burgers. Might as well call them Absolute B’s, amirite?
Nextbite: Purveyor of “curated” virtual brands that underutilized restaurants can host in their existing kitchens.
Wow Bao: Perhaps the most successful case of a brick and mortar brand going the virtual-franchise route, with a simple setup that fits in most kitchens and a popular niche offering.
Virtual Dining Concepts: Owned by the erstwhile, um, owner of Earl of Sandwich, the Earl Enterprises
airport-restaurant group has expanded into the virtual suite with Virtual Dining Concepts, a mix of celeb-sponsored and self-developed to-go brands.
The Secret Identity Brands: Starring Chuck E Cheese as “Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings,” Chili’s as “It’s Just Wings,” and Boston Market as “Rotisserie Roast,” these are brands that, sure, are gaming the third-party apps, but also seem a little embarrassed to just be themselves. You do you, Charles Edward Cheese!
That’s it! Think anything else should be on the cheat sheet? Shoot me an email @ email@example.com or let me know in the comments. Otherwise you can find further information in my ghostly glossary.
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