Ghost kitchens simply don’t have a need for hosts, servers, bartenders, bussers … What happens to those jobs if virtual kitchens continue to flourish?
Picture this: You’re hungry, but also a bit nervous about heading out to eat because of the pandemic, so you grab your mobile device, find a place in your area that sells wings and fries, order online, and shortly thereafter, your doorbell rings and the food is at your door.
These days it probably should, since so many people are focusing on delivery for ordering food and other items as the pandemic keeps people inside. Now picture this: What if the business you ordered from doesn’t actually exist—that is, in a traditional brick-and-mortar form—and your order came from a kitchen hidden away in an obscure industrial park that has no actual storefront?
More and more, this is exactly what is happening, as ghost kitchens—which are also known as cloud kitchens, virtual kitchens, and other names—are booming, competing with (and in some cases, complementing) traditional dining spots in the Greater Boston area and beyond. Some in the restaurant industry are concerned, however, and for good reason, as these food-service businesses threaten the livelihoods of countless workers while also having the potential to force restaurant owners to make some pretty hard decisions down the road.
So what is a ghost kitchen, and how exactly does it work? While there are variations on the concept, these virtual restaurants tend to consist of a kitchen where ingredients are prepped and dishes created to send off to diners, be it via delivery people who work for the business or through a third-party delivery service. The kitchens can be standalone spots in such places as office parks, old factories, warehouses, shopping centers, malls, and hotels, or they can be set up within existing restaurants, perhaps as a second kitchen or a part of a kitchen that is already used for a brick-and-mortar dining spot. As far as what types of foods are offered, well, theoretically the sky’s the limit, though in reality, traditional takeout items that travel well (wings, tenders, pizza, burritos, salads, grain bowls, sushi, sandwiches, etc.) are safe options considering that not everyone wants higher-end dishes such as braised lamb shank or stuffed quail to be delivered to their homes.
The ghost kitchen concept seems like a no-brainer these days, especially considering that even before the coronavirus led many to hunker down, virtual restaurants were already starting to take off in part because people were already starting to work more at home and mobile technology was making online delivery a more viable option. The fact that so many business owners seem to be at least considering getting into the concept doesn’t sit well with everyone, however, as a lot is at stake, not the least of which is the future of front-of-house (FOH) workers.
Ghost kitchens simply don’t have a need for hosts, servers, bartenders, bussers, runners, general managers, or floor managers, so what happens to those jobs if virtual kitchens continue to flourish at the expense of brick-and-mortar restaurants? Furthermore, even back-of-house (BOH) jobs can be affected as well, as a ghost kitchen might not have a need for all positions including an executive chef, a sous chef, line cooks, and dishwashers, instead having fewer workers doing multiple tasks. As a result, the proliferation of virtual kitchens could lead to a lot of people being out of work and possibly leaving the industry entirely as these are jobs that may never return.
While the increasing popularity of ghost kitchens is worrisome in some ways, they can also be seen as a necessary progression of sorts, and a path to survival for more than a few existing restaurants. The pandemic and subsequent state/local restrictions on dining spaces, combined with a sharp decrease in foot traffic nearly everywhere, has led to the temporary or permanent closures of countless places, simply because there aren’t enough customers to make it feasible to remain open, especially if restaurants don’t get breaks on rents. But if a dining spot that is getting only 25% of its normal business sets up a virtual kitchen in its back area and starts offering food items for delivery only, that could be just enough to keep the place in business until things get better—and once things do get better, if the ghost kitchen is doing a bang-up business, it may be worth continuing even as the physical dining area gets back up to speed.
Are ghost kitchens here to stay? That seems to be a given. Will this lead to job losses in the restaurant industry? Sadly, that also seems to be a given, though to what extent is anyone’s guess right now. One fear is that the big chains might start to get into the virtual kitchen concept in a big way—and there are signs that this is starting to happen—which could further decimate an industry that is already teetering from massive job losses and closures.
It’s a trend that needs to be watched carefully, and one that lawmakers may actually need to monitor in at least a casual manner for now, because a lot could ultimately be at stake.