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spooky kitchens #1: 1/7/22
Happy Friday y’all,
Welcome to and thanks for reading the inaugural edition of spooky kitchens. I’m excited to be embarking on this weird, fun, informative weekly journey with you.
For this “soft launch” running through January I’ll be shaping up the newsletter into its mostly-final form. Then starting February 4th, the plan is to shift gears to a paid subscription for the newsletter (for $5/monthly or $3/month annually), focused on the latest news — with special reports and deep dives thrown in now and then to keep it fresh. But, we’ll see how it goes!
In the meantime, general feedback on the content, design, and any weird email hiccups you encounter is appreciated…
…to an extent. :)
Now, to the news —
So what happened this week? (TL;DR)
Our first feature kicks off this newsletter and the year with a nice, easy question: what, exactly, is the future of ghost kitchens & virtual restaurants? An excellent Eater article takes a direct look at the possible answers, inspired by presentations given at the Food On Demand Conference in Las Vegas last fall.
Finally, in our Sides section we’ll jump into this week’s headlines that fell outside our feature categories, including a new ghost kitchen/food hall in LA, a “sweet” pass, and a little oopsy-woopsy stock downgrade for Grubhub.
Before we dive in, if you need a refresher on who the major ghost kitchen players are and how it all works (or you just want to know what “mis-en-place” is), take a look at my spooky kitchens industry cheat sheet and ghostly glossary. As for who I am and why this newsletter exists, I’ll point you to my boo-o (…my bio).
All set? Great. Fire newsletter!
what, exactly, is the future of ghost kitchens & virtual restaurants?
⏳❓ Is the ‘Future of Food’ the Future We Want? (Jaya Saxena, Eater).
Read it! Writer Jaya Saxena distills the pomp & circumstance of the Food On Demand conference into a cutting, bullseye insight into the dream of ghost kitchens & virtual restaurants. It’s the best article about the space I’ve read since…actually, not that long ago (don’t hold that against it, the other article is just also great — & linked below). Also the best one to put you on a level ground as you consider the space heading into 2022.
I, Kitchen. One of the pillars of the article is the cost of this future — or rather, the people who tend to be overlooked or forgotten by pontificating executives. Along the road to automation, who is cast to the side? Who becomes unemployed? Because if our delivered future is to be as grand and democratically distributed as the industry’s C-suite promises, it’s going to take more a little more work than waiting around for the robots to get better (and legal).
A hard, but fair look. One of the things I really enjoy about this article is that it neither presents a utopian wonderland of flying delivery drones and cooking robot arms and cornucopias in every child’s hands, nor a dystopian tech-strewn wasteland of food culture; it considers the potential benefits of the everyday luxury of even-more-convenient food & goods delivered fast, as well as the consequences of pursuing that reality blindly, without transparency or responsibility. It’s sobering, often right, and a great thought-sparker for the top of the year.
The fight to rein in delivery apps (Helen Rosner, The New Yorker). The other best article I’ve read about the food delivery/virtual restaurant space in a good long while. Helen Rosner and Moe Tkacik (the researcher) clearly lay out these broad, longstanding industry issues that are culminating (for now) in delivery caps and alternative delivery solutions.
ChowNow & Restaurant Dive’s “Off-Premise Initiatives” report — great (long) summary of Restaurant Dive reporting of the space from 2020 to today. A highly-recommended resource for anyone needing a deeper catch-up on the space.
How ghost kitchens & virtual brands could change the restaurant industry (Jonathan Maze, Restaurant Business). A conversation between Jonathan Maze and former Red Robin CEO (and current Nextbite advisor) Denny Marie Post, who brings a unique perspective on virtual brands from her current consulting role as well as having launched Donato’s Pizza virtual outlets inside Red Robins nationwide.
“they’re not here to fulfill my every whim and desire, they only here for money!” realizes restaurant owner (labor in 2022)
💰💸 Why workers stay and why they leave (Restaurant Business).
Some quick stats (all from RB):
58% of hospitality workers said they’re planning to quit by the end of the year (2021). ~25% of them said it’s for good.
19% said one of their top reasons for quitting was happiness & treatment by employer.
20% are leaving the industry to pursue a new career path.
Some quick lessons.
Higher wages, more benefits (or any benefits), and better workplace culture are a start to bringing in new hires.
Steady hours and consistent pay (born of steady hours for tipped employees) are a continuation for keeping new hires.
Basically, would you want to work the jobs you’re hiring for? If not, why?
Admittedly much of this report is from earlier in the fall and isn’t exactly surprising. But, a great refresher during continued hiring troubles in the new year.
Doordash requires all employees to make deliveries (John Corrigan, HRD Mag). In an interesting turn of events, Doordash has managed to tick off the people it classifies as “real employees” for a change (where usually they’re in the headlines for disputes with their drivers, or “contractors”). While it’s a sort-of noble idea to have the corporate employees make deliveries to keep them “grounded” and in touch with the company’s end service, in practice (and in my experience), most people hate this obligatory bologna. A volunteer opportunity? Great! A mandatory “make one delivery or receive a demerit to your performance record”? Malarkey!
McDonald’s CEO: federal minimum wage no longer competitive (Ben Coley, QSR Magazine). You mean you can’t make a living off of $7.25/hr? Whaaaaaat? It’s rare (in my estimation) and somewhat refreshing to hear a business owner, much less a restaurant owner, take this position on any minimum wage. Doesn’t mean McDonald’s has suddenly sprouted angel wings but acknowledging this reality (as have many other chains now) is a start.
what’s everyone predicting for 2022?
What the industry’s soothsayers are predicting for 2022 (Patricia Cobe, Restaurant Business).
See “related reading” below for the other full lists!
The biggest (well, most common) predictions:
Robots! Basically, more and better drones. Possibly expanded drone delivery beyond the current, limited test markets.
Ghost kitchens! Still seeing questions around the “ghost kitchen bubble” in some of these lists — much like the “food delivery bubble” that looked so, so fragile to the industry only a few years ago. Still waiting for a *pop* on that one. Anyway, the fortune-tellers expect ghost kitchens to continuing vying for market share and evolving their businesses (while copying piecemeal from competitors) as they continue the elusive search for the perfect model.
Digitize! The floodgates are open (and have been for a while) on the greater restaurant digital revolution. Analysts predict even more online ordering and contactless payment processing (even when dining in) in 2022, as well as more digital marketing and emphasis on apps and associated loyalty programs.
Shortages! Technomic called 2022 “The Year of the Climb,” in which operators will keep learning to do more with less (labor, supply, menu, and footprints) as the labor and supply chain pressures (as well as the big , global economic pressure that is *that thing that rhymes with “shmovid”*) show no signs of easing.
Alternate income streams! Subscription services for food and/or beverages, retail product sales, and cooking classes have been increasing in popularity and made a large jump in 2021.
And the weird ones:
I saw “The Metaverse” on one list, and while I appreciate the optimism, restaurants just got online ordering. At their pace it’ll be about three generations before they make it to The Metaverse (Roblox, Fortnite, etc) and by then it’ll be a laser-scorched cyber-wasteland populated only by millennials clinging desperately to the last time they felt youthful.
A robot bartender was mentioned in reference to automation. They are not yet popular and still a far cry from Ol’ Screen-face. But one can hope.
Full prediction lists:
What to expect from restaurant technology innovation in 2022 (Joanna Fantozzi, NRN).
What’s next for restaurant technology? (Joe Guzkowski, Restaurant Business).
Square survey explores 2022 for the restaurant industry (Arthur Robert, Food On Demand).
7 restaurant trends that will define 2022 (Emma Liem Beckett, Julie Littman, Aneurin Canham-Clyde, Restaurant Dive).
🏝 REEF opens in the Middle East and North Africa (Businesswire). In which REEF makes a partnership with UAE-based Americana Brands to expand into the Middle East. Hey, good news for REEF! Wow! But also, remember all the bad news?
Food safety violations (Insider) Yikes.
Permitting struggles (Insider) Double yikes.
Notable exits (NRN) Yikes yikes yikes.
Note: REEF’s an adult, they’ll figure it out. You know, as much as all us adults have it figured out.
🦘️↗️ Deliveroo continues to expand Editions (ghost kitchens) in London (George Nott, The Grocer). Thought they’d have fully saturated that market by now, but not yet apparently. Always interested to watch Deliveroo, because they’re a couple years ahead of the US market in terms of penetration and growth of ghost kitchens (or “dark kitchens” as they’re equally-unfortunately called there). This continued expansion in the biggest UK metropole suggests both still-growing customer adoption of delivery within the market, as well as patient deliberation by the company in its site selection.
🧛💸 Restaurants are price-gouging rapid tests on food delivery apps (Edward Ongweso, Jr, VICE). Not what we meant by “alternate income streams,” scammers. A real and terrible practice that squeezes folks in need during a crisis, especially in cities like NY. Not fully a trend yet, but one to watch in the current (and sadly, probable future) virus wave.
🥗🎫 Sweetgreen launches “sweetpass” subscription (Aneurin Canham-Clyne, Restaurant Dive). What sounds in name like a jump to the front of the line at every Sprinkles location is actually a…salad subscription? I think it’s fine – if there’s a peeve I have, it’s that, well, you don’t sell anything sweet. Also, no, we haven’t forgotten the whole “if we were less obese we’d have less COVID” thing 👀 (this quote has been editorially paraphrased…but it’s pretty close).
Taco Bell takes taco subscription program national (Lisa Jennings, NRN). Now here’s a pass I’ll happily sub!
❓👻 Why would a food hall choose to call itself a ghost kitchen? Partake, a very close blend between a commercial kitchen, ghost kitchen, and food hall, is opening in Long Beach in 2022 and Glassell Park in 2023 (both in LA).
🧑🍳➕ Kalanick’s KitchenPlus off to a tepid start in India (Disha Sharma, The Economic Times). I didn’t get through the paywall, but always curious to see another Cloud spinoff spinning up in the world. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
👎 Moody’s downgrades Grubhub (Tom Kaiser, Food On Demand). Yeeeeesh *tugs on collar.* The list of reasons for the downgrade includes: poor liquidity, negative EBITDA, decline in cash & investments, and even a lack of commitment by Just Eat/Takeaway to financially support Grubhub. Basically, little money and no backup. Woops.
🤝👯 Lyft & Olo hold hands in public (not the actual title) (Tom Kaiser, Food On Demand). Olo’s “Dispatch” feature connects the online ordering platform to third-party deliver services, including thee third-party delivery services as well as smaller, local outfits. Olo fulfills all the software and ordering as it does best, and Lyft just does the driving, as it does best. Couple of the year?
🥷 Waitr rebranding as ASAP, acquires another cannabis company. (Nicholas Upton, Food On Demand). “...the No. 4 provider is carving a niche to be a payment processor and logistics partner for restaurants and retailers, but with a specialty in cannabis.” Sounds to me like someone’s pivoting away from food delivery, rapidly.
The hood is pulled back, the snarling, grotesque mask torn away, and the Mystery Team reveal — me! I’m Mitch.
The TL;DR version of my story is: I worked in the ghost kitchen space since nearly its American inception, and now I write distilled summaries of the weekly industry news — the best possible use of all the incredibly niche knowledge stored up in my head.
News…fun? I figured the ghost kitchen-heads out there could use something both fun & insightful to read — one can only take so much direct input from Restaurant Business, Nation’s Restaurant News, Food On Demand, Fast Casual, and Restaurant Dive (to be clear: plenty of good reporting, but it’s a real time-suck to check each of them every day. Trust me, I know). The most complete picture of the ghost kitchen industry pulls from all those sources and more and boils them down into one simple, goofy digest.
And that’s spooky kitchens.
Welcome to the oddest niche newsletter on the Internet. See you on Fridays.
P.S. If you’re just jumping into ghost kitchens and want to learn more, check out my ghostly glossary and spooky kitchens ghost kitchen cheat sheet. They’re there (and frequently updated) to help make sense of this weird and wild west.