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Ghost kitchens refers to a concept that has grown more popular as the demand for restaurant delivery services has gone up over the past few years. While they might sound good on paper as a form of innovation to meet customer needs, here’s why it’s a bad sign. 

Ghost kitchens are often brick-and-mortar sites, but problematically sometimes they’re just hidden kitchens, as Tik Tok user and DoorDash driver @playboilacroix discovered, where restaurant meals are cooked but there’s no customer seating or dining. 

Restaurants will partner with localized ghost kitchens to serve a select few of their meals, usually in a location that doesn’t have that restaurant in the area. It’s an effective way of keeping restaurants alive with lower costs because ghost kitchens don’t need to spend nearly as much on labour, with no waitstaff to pay. The only people employed on site are cooks, which makes the business model very cost effective. Also, because of the extremely simplistic setup of the physical building’s interior — usually a large kitchen hidden behind a wall that separates a small pickup-zone at the front of the store — the overhead costs are minimal as well. 

On paper this sounds reasonable; restaurants get a chance at survival in places they can’t fully commit a brick and mortar site to and customers get a wider variety of food choices in the areas they live and get their food extremely quickly too. The critique of ghost kitchens requires zooming out a bit and looking at the direction that the food industry is going with digitalization through Silicon Valley’s delivery technologies. 

There’s an incessant push to get food to your door ASAP with a click of a button and there’s a harder to spot social cost to this shift in the nature of convenient food services that ghost kitchens are a logical extension of. With local dine-in restaurants already being undercut by the convenience of delivery apps, this new ghost kitchen format could spell bad news for standard restaurants.

What’s notable is that ghost kitchens rely heavily on delivery service apps. At the location in my city, the parking lot has four spots at the front of the building that are exclusively reserved for Uber Eats drivers and, from my experience, food delivery drivers are the primary customers of this particular ghost kitchen. It’s not hard to see why; as mentioned before, the business model is predicated on production efficiency and churning out profit at a low cost. 

You don’t even really see the person making the food until they bring it up to the front of the building. At my location, there’s a large touch screen on the wall that covers the kitchen from the front entrance and after you order from the touch screen a bell is rung at the pickup counter when the food is ready. It’s a very sterile and impersonal environment and this appears to be a feature, not a bug. 

This also works out for restaurants looking to get data on what foods people are enjoying most through this highly digitalized process. This turns food choices into a game of algorithms. 

What’s notable about this process is that the way in which food is consumed plays a large part in one’s likelihood to purchase it again. Being immersed in a restaurant’s atmosphere and getting certain foods fresh off the stove gives a different impression of what you’re eating as opposed to the forty-minute trip that your ghost kitchen meal takes in its styrofoam package to eventually be eaten by you in your house. This is why the food items that are highly prevalent at ghost kitchens are the lowest common denominator foods like wings, cheap desserts, pizza, and burgers from massive food enterprises, like Denny’s, who can easily outbid a local franchise for a spot on the menu. 

We hardly have to think about the immigrant-heavy, highly disposable, and mostly non-unionized delivery app workers because we don’t have to see them anymore, while at the same time the delivery app industry is projected to be a $230 billion global industry by 2025. In addition to that, the uncostly, “middle man” model of ghost kitchens only further undermines the strength of unique local dine-in restaurants and becomes a hot spot for delivery app drivers, as the foods that are most likely to survive on the menu of these kitchens are those best suited to the impersonal, highly convenient structure of the supply process, which is why their menus primarily consist of chain restaurants. I’d much rather order a McDonald’s burger from a delivery app because the quality isn’t hindered much by the trip — largely because of all the preservatives — and I’m not dying to get the full in-house McDonalds experience anyways.

Granted, COVID-19 played a huge role in the acceleration of restaurant delivery services. However, this shouldn’t be read as some conspiracy theory plot with a centralized group of people trying purposefully to atomize and exploit food industry workers, even though the latter is happening as a result of these technologies and the current demand for delivered food. 

The important question to ask is where we are heading now that these efficient models of food delivery are becoming the norm after being spring boarded by the pandemic, especially given that the issues inherent to them are much harder to spot because, again, we don’t even have to see the process anymore and it’s just so easy to do when it’s right there on your phone.

What is clear is that the social aspect of food is being killed by the radical convenience of these industries. A concept like ghost kitchens may in fact be the innovative future that its creators see it as, but that’s exactly the problem.