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Restaurant Life

Ghost Kitchens Cloud the Future of Restaurants

The pandemic hasn’t stopped the affable and beloved restaurant everyman Guy Fieri from installing outposts of his new plug-and-play restaurant, Flavortown Kitchen, in cities all over the country. In just a matter of weeks, the Mayor of Flavortown and his associates have co-opted 100 vacant kitchens and transformed them into delivery-only restaurants featuring bro-forward menus of artery-clogging Fieri favorites like “Mac Daddy” Mac-and-Cheese, Jalapeño “Pig Poppers,” and, of course, his signature Donkey Sauce. The parent company, Virtual Dining Concepts, plans to grow its footprint to 500 stores over the next few years.

Given the meteoric rise of these so-called “ghost kitchens,one wonders whether this trend of virtual dining has staying power after the pandemic threat subsides. Covid-19 has accelerated the ways that restaurants rely on technology to run more efficiently. It’s also exposed how vulnerable smaller restaurants are to the tyranny of third-party delivery apps and payment processors.

Mr. Fieri is hardly to blame for this trend. In his defense, he’s been an outspoken advocate for the restaurant industry since the pandemic began. His charitable foundation has raised tens of millions of dollars to provide relief for unemployed restaurant workers. According to Fieri, the rollout of Flavortown Kitchen was driven by his desire to support struggling restaurants that are temporarily closed or underutilizing their space.

Guy Fieri, the celebrity chef of Flavortown Kitchen

The pandemic has forced many independent restaurant owners and chefs to abandon their foundational concepts. Out of necessity, they’ve focused more on delivery and take-out, merchandising to-go cocktails, managing curbside pickup, and facilitating non-contact ordering. But now those businesses have to compete with a new flock of virtual restaurants that may offer similar products but with considerably lower overhead.

This is one of the many inherent advantages that ghost kitchens have over brick-and-mortar restaurants. They eliminate the need to procure costly and visible storefronts that drive foot traffic. With more space designated for food preparation, they’re able to more easily achieve scale.

Ghost kitchens eschew the exhibitionist trend that’s defined dining out over the last decade. The popularity of open kitchens in the early Aughts lured diners into the spectacle of cooking in a way that fostered an insatiable hunger for access. Social media turned that peckishness into carnal lust.

Concealing the kitchen is a worthwhile sacrifice for these cloud businesses in order to capitalize on a restaurant’s greatest liability. A restaurant’s kitchen often consumes up to a quarter of the physical space, surface area that can’t be used to generate revenue from paying customers. The fact that tables are so tightly packed in bustling big-city restaurants is usually borne out of necessity. They need to overcompensate for the fact that they can’t seat anyone in the area designated for cooking.

You may not have noticed it, but restaurant kitchens have been steadily shrinking over the years. Kitchen staffs have gotten smaller, too. Not only to curtail labor costs, but also to manage spatial constraints that make it impossible to fit more bodies behind the line. Every cook today is doing the job of three cooks in yesterday’s industry. When the pandemic dissipates, kitchens will become even smaller, and an already overworked kitchen staff will be stretched even more thin.

Right now, though, the Covid-19 crisis has left a dearth of dormant kitchen spaces in hotels, defunct restaurants and clubs that cannot legally open or can only operate under limited capacity. After abruptly filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year, the parent company of Chuck E. Cheese turned many of its dark kitchens into Pasqually’s Pizza, a delivery-only virtual restaurant.

Venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity to find ways of monetizing vacant restaurants. Kitsch, a New York-based company that bills itself as a “kitchen matchmaker,” wants to be known as the “AirBnB for commercial kitchens” by connecting food entrepreneurs with off-site facilities to prepare food. Travis Kalanick, the much-maligned founder of Uber, recently invested $120 million in CloudKitchens, a ghost kitchen startup with aggressive plans for expansion.

According to a New Yorker article published earlier this year, Uber Eats has already facilitated delivery from 7,000 virtual kitchens worldwide, 4,000 in North America alone. Tech companies like Uber leverage troves of data about their customers’ food preferences with a level of granularity that these restaurants could never achieve on their own. This encourages restaurateurs to open off-premise kitchens with curated menus geared toward those proven preferences.

As we’ve learned, these third-party services are adept at creating efficiencies, but their onerous terms can also be oppressive to smaller restaurant owners. There are hidden costs to filtering our consumption through a middleman that picks the pockets of both parties before the doorbell rings.

Ghost-Kitchens

During the pandemic, technology has become indispensable for human connection, but it’s also made these connections more opaque. The same could be said about the relationship we have with our food and its purveyors. In the way that reliance on social media and video conferencing has created a barrier to social interactions, there’s a real risk that ghost kitchens drive a deeper wedge in between us and our meals.

In today’s world, everything is streamable. Food is no exception. Everything we could possibly want to eat is always just a tap or click away. The digital experience is even designed to feel like your delivery order is “downloading” with intermittent messages that keep customers abreast of the status of their order.

These platforms are able to aggregate data and design algorithms to keep customers locked into their ecosystems. Mobile apps like GrubHub and DoorDash can recommend dishes based on your order history and upsell you add-ons before you check out. The goal of these services is to make these transactions as effortless as possible, prioritizing convenience and consistency. This is markedly different from the aspirations of seated, full-service restaurants that strive to be both engaging and delicious.

Restaurants are the nervous centers of their communities, interwoven together they create a patchwork of a city’s history. Imagine New York City without Katz’s Deli, Sylvia’s, or Peter Luger’s. Iconic restaurants, easily identifiable by their facades, like these define a city’s identity and carry its rich history with them. Aren’t these places flavorful enough without Flavortown moving into the neighborhood?

Unfortunately, the corpses of many deceased independent restaurants will likely be exhumed by corporate chains and reincarnated as Applebee’s, Cheesecake Factory or Texas Roadhouse. Just as we’ve experienced with the extinction of so many beloved small retailers across the country that have been subsumed by our online shopping habits, physical restaurant spaces, especially the neighborhood variety, face a similar existential threat. The traditional business model of a restaurant isn’t sustainable anymore. If we don’t do something to reverse the trend soon, our communities won’t only have ghost kitchens, they’ll become ghost towns.

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Restaurant Life

Breaking Up With The Restaurant Industry Is Hard To Do

The millions of us who’ve lost restaurant jobs because of the pandemic are feeling unloved. With Valentine’s Day approaching, any amorous thoughts we have about rekindling with our ex-employers are tempered by the heartache of having been dumped by an industry that never truly loved us. The more time we’ve invested in this tumultuous yet committed relationship—in my case, twenty long years—the more the break up stings.

First you think to yourself, I should’ve seen it coming. But how could you have known? You were too busy working all the time—we all were—religiously prioritizing the needs of the restaurant above our own. Now you feel confused. Lost. You blame yourself. As time passes, you start to feel cheated. 

You remind yourself that you don’t really miss restaurants, you just miss the “idea” of them. Your friends tell you it’s time to start seeing other industries. You deserve better, they tell you. But it still hurts that restaurants could so easily dispose of you when it seemed like what you had meant something.

You promise yourself you won’t get back together after everything that’s happened, but you know you’re not strong enough to resist their worldly charms. The flexible schedule. The adrenaline of the dinner rush. The money. You know the restaurant industry will welcome you with a warm embrace, like you’re the only person who does your job so well. But within days you feel like a piece of meat again. No matter how hard you try to make it work with restaurants, they’ll never respect you.

The sense of abandonment many of us feel is a sobering reminder of how little value our deep knowledge of the culinary arts has when we have nowhere to display it. It’s like being a pastor without a church or a congregation to bear witness. We’ve dedicated our adult lives to facilitating joy for others, delivering multitudes of hedonistic pleasures to complete strangers. In our time of need, shouldn’t it be our turn to be on the receiving end of the generosity?

Restaurant-Industry

Charles Prusik, a veteran of the restaurant industry in New York City, considered this question in an essay he published recently on Medium. In it, he questions whether true hospitality can exist in a world where accommodation is increasingly transactional. He writes:

“Here, I think, is the lie, the myth, at the heart of any restaurant that is the source of so much tension and strain between us restaurant employees and you, our guests: that when you visit our restaurant, you should expect the very same treatment as if we were welcoming you into our home. It’s a myth we’ve been perpetuating, perhaps with good intentions, but where it’s gotten us is an increasingly untenable position. Sure, some of us put in so many hours that it does seem like we live at the restaurant, but it is in every meaningful way clearly NOT our home. It’s our job. And while you are our guests, the transaction, the exchange, the social compact that we have entered into is something entirely different. Since you are not visiting us at our home, you cannot in any way return the favor.”

In most capitalist societies, it’s not unusual for people to be treated like they’re worthless at work. But in restaurants, daily reminders of your expendability have become accepted as the norm. Entitled guests, insolent chefs, and petulant managers often derive sadistic joy from belittling hourly workers. A restaurant paycheck, no matter how ample, rarely provides the necessary salve for injured egos.

But to be waylaid in the midst of a global pandemic? It’s the ultimate dispersion. For some, it’s a reality check. Sometimes you can’t see the writing on the wall until you run right into it. The disruption caused by the pandemic may portend a more widespread reckoning, a pivotal moment in the viability of hospitality work as a legitimate career. The restaurant industry seems underprepared for the inevitable depletion of its human resources. 

In his essay, Prusik tries to get at the heart of why the industry’s collapse will be so difficult to repair. Behind the walls of our restaurants, he writes, we describe the way a restaurant functions using mechanical terms that connote manufacturing, but, in reality, the organism is more anthropomorphic.

“We say things like “The kitchen was firing on all cylinders,” “Thanks for pumping out those drinks for me,” or “Man, we’re really crushing it this week and it’s not even Thursday.” The trouble with that analogy lies in this — when machines break down, everything grinds to a halt until you fix the problem — change the stripped gear, clean the oil filter, add more gas. Restaurants don’t have that luxury. They’re less like machines and more like the human body—an endlessly complex and incredible feat of engineering that begins to break down from the moment it is created.”

Prusik reminds us that the public has taken the restaurant industry for granted for too long. We’re all complicit in this failure. He punctuates this assertion with a simple but apt analogy: 

“The last twenty years were the equivalent of a twelve course chef’s tasting menu with pairings and a trip to the wine cellar for brandy and cigars after dessert, and you just stiffed us on the bill.”

The restaurant economy was stagnating before the pandemic. COVID-19 put it on a ventilator. Many prognosticators expect that pent up demand will slingshot the business forward into a “Roaring Twenties” scenario akin to the euphoric aftermath of the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918. But this ignores some of the basic realities that today’s restaurants face when it comes to growth.

It’s impossible for restaurants to multiply last year’s sales unless they can find a way to multiply the amount of chairs and tables in their dining room. Restaurant space is finite (and oppressively expensive), which means that growth can only come from volume—faster service, tighter reservation intervals, and operational efficiency. Perfunctory service isn’t just about profitability, it’s become integral to our ability to survive.

Restaurants that manage to survive will be forced to implement austerity measures that are likely to take a severe toll on the staff. The lowest paid positions will be expected to make the biggest sacrifices. If any staff members dare to complain, they’ll be reminded how lucky they are to have their jobs back.

For those who’ve spent years working in restaurants, it’s getting harder to hide the bruises. How can we love working in an industry that doesn’t love us back? The endless cycle of bad restaurant relationships erodes our self-worth. But victims of abuse can also reach a breaking point where they realize it isn’t worth the suffering. They find the inner strength to move on.

This is the precipice many restaurants workers are arriving at now. We’ve known all along that restaurants never really loved us for our minds, they only lusted for our bodies. But the sex was never really that good, administering hospitality just one giant fake orgasm after another. So as the restaurant industry digs itself out of the rubble and reaches out to former staff to “patch things up,” it may find that more than a few of its former lovers won’t be returning the phone calls anytime soon.


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