the ghostly glossary
what does it all mean!?
This glossary contains an incomplete summary of ghost kitchen & restaurant industry terms, with some broader restaurant lingo thrown in for good measure. Feel free to let me know if there’s a term you’re unfamiliar with that you’d like to see added @ email@example.com.
delivery service provider (DSP)
order management platform (OMP)
point-of-sale (POS) system
quick-service restaurant (QSR)
third-party delivery (3PD)
to-go food hall
to be updated as more jargon is established.
a maximum fee or commission that delivery companies can charge a restaurant per delivery.
A delivery cap, imposed by an individual city on the likes of Doordash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub, is really the first stab at government regulation of the third-party delivery space. It is unlikely to be the last.
delivery service provider (DSP)
any entity that transfers food from restaurant to customer.
See “third-party delivery.”
Technically a “delivery service provider” could also be a first-party delivery service, such as a Domino’s or Jimmy John’s delivery driver. But literally no one uses the term DSP to describe that, and probably never will.
If you read “delivery service provider” or DSP in the newsletter, it is a synonym for third-party delivery or 3PD, and I’m only using it because I got so, so tired of saying the other one.
a restaurant model that typically involves quickly-made, decent-quality food ordered and assembled at a long counter — the bridge between fast food and sit-down dining.
Fast casual was the last new disruptive darling of the restaurant industry before ghost kitchens — and now, they’re just another part of the landscape. Think of brands like Chipotle, Lemonade, and Blaze Pizza: once upon a time, they were the little guy.
“First In First Out,” a method of ordering logistics, or in our case, handing off food orders to delivery drivers. In this method, the first driver ready to go gets the first bag ready to go.
Every third-party delivery company assigns a specific driver to a specific order, which keeps things a little easier to track but also results in major inefficiencies — the most obvious being this:
Driver A is supposed to pick up Order A, and Driver B is supposed to pick up Order B. Order A is ready but Driver A is late. Order B is late but Driver B is at the restaurant. Driver B cannot take Order A because they haven’t been assigned Order A. Driver B stands around waiting for Order B, and Order A sits on the rack until Driver A shows up. This is a waste; an extremely common waste.
With a FIFO distribution system set up, if Driver B arrives before Driver A, then it’s no problem for Driver B to take Order A if that’s the one that’s ready. In fact, in a FIFO system, there would be no point to Bs or As — there is just the next Driver and the next Order, and that’s it.
However, FIFO is hard for 3PDs to set up because (1) their driver pools fluctuate wildly by season and by location, and (2) drivers are contractors and accustomed to seeing certain information about an order (size of order, distance to be traveled, and their pay and/or tip) before they choose to accept it. A FIFO system, to be fully effective, assumes a reliable stream of drivers prepared to grab and go — a reliability that 3PDs cannot provide.
in a traditional mall, the place where all the restaurants are.
Aka an old, bad food hall such as you might find in your local mall.
What’s a mall? Oh, that’s a place where, once upon a time, smiling American consumers flocked to spend their money and free time surrounded by walls, AC, and as many niche retail goods as you can fit in a few thousand square feet (e.g. Spencer’s Gifts, sword stores, Hot Topic).
A food court is what America’s mall-ists called “the place where all the restaurants are” within their giant retail footprint.
There was an attempt, in the early positioning of the ghost kitchen space, to use the phrase “virtual food court.” It failed because people associated food courts with bad food. Go figure.
Food courts tend to contain fast food brands (so as not to interrupt intrepid shoppers’ fast-paced schedule) as well as at minimum (1) Hot Dog On a Stick, (1) stir-fry concept and (1) of either Wetzel’s Pretzel’s or Auntie Anne’s.
Synonyms: old food hall
Popular food courts include:
That one at the mall with the Burger King.
a standalone building and business housing multiple restaurants, often with small kitchen footprints and shared seating.
Aka a new, actually-good food court such as you might find in your local recently-gentrified neighborhood.
Restaurants within a food hall may be independently owned and operated or multiple concepts run by one umbrella restaurant group. Food halls do not typically contain large chain brands.
Synonyms: hip food court
Popular food halls include:
(1) a standalone restaurant operation that prepares and distributes food primarily for takeout and/or delivery.
(2) the catchall name for the business model of an independently-operated, to-go-first restaurant.
We hated “ghost kitchen” in the early days of Kitchen United.
Which seems a little counterintuitive now, obviously. But this was before most folks in the restaurant industry knew what a ghost kitchen was, and so we asked ourselves what people would think of, what image would be conjured up when they heard the phrase “ghost kitchen?”
None of these are flattering (or accurate).
And beyond being unflattering, the term “ghost kitchen” lent the whole concept an otherworldly, surreal air. It made our whole business — that we were trying to create, and shape, and sell to an industry that is belligerently resistant to change and justifiably skeptical of all things technology — sound like a fantasy.
We tried for a long time to get other terms, truly anything else, to stick. Internationally this model is called “cloud kitchens,” but we couldn’t push that, as it was also the name of our (at the time) lone competitor. Virtual kitchen, virtual restaurant, to-go kitchen, to-go food hall…
Nope. The media, from the industry trades to the WSJ, loved “ghost kitchen.” And that’s what stuck.
A ghost kitchen is a standalone restaurant operation that prepares and distributes food primarily for takeout and/or delivery. It can have a minimal dine-in presence, but that would be a tertiary foodservice channel. It may or may not have branding or signage on the exterior identifying the restaurant(s) within. A ghost kitchen can contain a single restaurant concept, multiple restaurant concepts cooking out of one kitchen, or multiple full kitchens each producing the menu(s) of one or more restaurant concepts.
Above all, “ghost kitchen” is the catchall name for the business model of an independently-operated, to-go-first restaurant. It takes many different forms that will even further split and diverge as the pioneers of the space continue to hone in on a model and experience that really, really works for the holy trifecta of seller, restaurant, and consumer. An ongoing process.
Synonyms: virtual kitchen, cloud kitchen, delivery kitchen, to-go kitchen, “that weird place with a bunch of restaurants but you can’t see them”
Popular ghost kitchen providers include:
an existing restaurant that makes and sells (or “hosts”) the food of another, additional brand specifically for takeout and delivery.
A host kitchen is very much like a ghost kitchen, with one crucial difference: it is not a standalone or independently-run operation.
Popular host kitchens include:
That restaurant you went to to pick up food one time that didn’t look like the restaurant you ordered from and had no signs indicating that it was the one but this was the address you were given so you went inside and asked and the host sighed and said, “Yeah, that’s here,” before taking your name and grabbing your order and you walked out and wondered what just happened and really no matter how good the food was (mediocre, it turned out) you were so skeeved by the weirdness and confusion of that experience that you decided not to go back there and chalked it up to “weird pandemic stuff!”
a business model built on the premise of a central, primary “hub” of operations that distributes pieces of its output to multiple, smaller “spoke” locations
In ghost kitchens, the “hub” would be a central prep kitchen and the “spokes” outlying distribution centers where food would be finished (cooked) to order and then handed off to the driver or customer. There are a few companies testing this, the most significant of them being All Day Kitchens.
the setup or organization of your cook station within the kitchen (industry term).
It’s French for “misery in place", which is fitting.
Ok it’s actually French for “everything in its place.” But the misery one works, too.
Today mis-en-place is mostly used, including by yours truly, to show off that you know the term mis-en-place. And thus are deep in the know of the biz.
order management platform (OMP)
a software service that aggregates and consolidates order from multiple channels — delivery app, dedicated app, and/or web — into a single order list that is (theoretically) easier to manage.
Order management platforms rose to popularity as restaurants that onboarded multiple third-party delivery services grew tired of constantly managing their “tablet farms” — the area in a restaurant where all the constantly ringing and dinging Doordash, Grubhub, etc tablets live. OMPs are technically supposed to take all those orders and spit them out through one easy-peasy tablet and, better yet, order ticket printer. However, restaurants still have to keep the 3PD tablets in order to make menu updates or stop taking orders if needed (it is often needed). There is also not widespread integration between OMPs and restaurant POS systems, which means that whoever takes the order off the printer or tablet has to re-punch it in to the POS so it is tracked in the restaurant’s order logs and fired in the kitchen.
Popular OMPs include:
point-of-sale system (POS)
the backbone of the modern restaurant. A POS (not piece-of-shit btw, except for when it’s being one) is where all orders are entered, tracked, fired to printers in the kitchen and/or bar, receipts printed, and numbers spit out to management each day.
If you’re dining in at practically any restaurant in the country (except for some real old-school holdouts god bless), your server or cashier will take your order and then immediately go to a POS station to enter it and put your meal on wheels. Nowadays it’s very hard to run a restaurant without a POS — and the best of them integrate with online ordering and even delivery services.
quick service restaurant (QSR)
the traditional — and traditionally stupid — form of unpaid internship at restaurants.
To be clear, this is not “stodging” (though it is pronounced more or less like that). Do not look up stodging. Don’t say I didn’t warn you to not look up stodging. You make this mistake once when you accidentally give your HR Director the wrong spelling of staging. Don’t do it.
Staging is a French term (stah-jing) and culinary practice.
Almost all cooks, no matter where you are (well, until this year) do a “stage,” or free stint for a few nights, at a restaurant that they’re going to work for before being officially hired there (if they’re officially hired there).
Sometimes a stage is just to test chemistry with the team, sometimes it’s to gain experience in a more upscale kitchen or with a renowned chef, and sometimes it’s a longer-term “apprenticeship” that exploits this free, volunteer labor. See: many restaurants on the “50 Best Restaurants in the World” list for examples of the latter, where young, mostly well-off chef-lets from around the world queue up to work for free so they can say they staged in Big Kitchen.
Synonyms: unpaid internship, exploitative labor practice
Homonyms: stodging (don’t)
third-party delivery (3PD)
any entity that transfers food or goods from seller to buyer; specifically an entity that is independent and otherwise unaffiliated with the seller.
Domino’s delivery person delivering Domino’s Pizza = First-party.
Doordash delivery person delivering Pizza Hut = Third-party.*
The BBEGs (Big Bad Evil Guys — two definitions in one!) of the restaurant business.
Not really. But kind of.
If you’re not getting your food delivered by someone wearing a cap with the logo of the restaurant you just ordered from, then your food was delivered by a third-party delivery driver. They probably (but not definitely) work for Doordash, Grubhub, or Uber Eats. Or Postmates or Caviar, which are now owned by Uber Eats and Doordash, respectively.
“Third party” just means “a separate entity from the seller (the restaurant) and the buyer (the customer).”
There are also smaller delivery companies (see “white-label”) that would also fall under the umbrella of “third-party” — but for the most part, if you see 3PD in the newsletter or in a headline, it’s in reference to the Big 3 providers.
Synonyms: delivery service provider (ish), Big Delivery, The Great Evil
Popular third-party delivery providers include:
I just told you. Did you not read all of my good words? Ugh.
Just Eat (international)
*What’s second-party delivery, you ask? Pickup.
to-go food hall
A food hall (see food hall) where the primary service is takeout and delivery as opposed to dine-in.
A to-go food hall likely has a smaller capacity for dine-in seating than a traditional food hall, and may or may not involve direct interaction with its vendors. A tech-optimized to-go food hall will typically have ordering tablets and proprietary software set up to route and coordinate in-house, online, and third-party delivery orders to kitchens in an effort to minimize labor costs and maximize efficiency.
This is a fairly new concept and more or less a sub-category of ghost kitchens that has a little bit more of a dine-in experience.
a fake restaurant.
Hah, I kid. Funny.
a restaurant that you can only interact with digitally, online, i.e. via a website or a third-party delivery app.
Virtual restaurants obviously make real food cooked by real people in a real kitchen. Obviously. But the point of a virtual restaurant is the extreme ease of scaling a digital-only brand. Today no one’s eating Sly Stallone’s Big Beefy Bones, but tomorrow? 300 Sly Stallone’s Big Beefy Bones in 20 markets across the country.
I dig more into how a virtual restaurant actually works in my spooky kitchens ghost kitchen cheat sheet. Read more inside(!).
Popular virtual restaurants include:
I don’t wanna say, you might order from them.
Pasqually’s Pizza (you do want to order from this one, trust me)
Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen (I kid you not)
unbranded products or services offered by one company that another company (say, a restaurant) can brand as its own.
There are white-label delivery providers, white-label online ordering platforms, and countless white-label food & supply distributors. Typically they offer a good or better service and alternative to third-party options (which are branded to the third-party), while requiring a little more legwork from the restaurant to market and support these products or services.
I’m mainly talking about delivery here but the same is more or less true of all white-label offerings.
Popular white-label providers (in restaurants) include:
Olo (OnLine Ordering for big restaurant chains)
Chownow (online ordering for the smols, the indies, the little guy)
Toast (same as Chownow but with a POS)
Lunchbox (kinda same as Toast & Chownow but also an order management platform)
Could someone you know or work with use a refresh on ghost kitchen lingo? Share this post:
And I’ll just leave this right here…you know, just in case.