Saturday, July 13, 2024

Here’s the State of Delivery App Virtual Kitchens in 2024

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Finally: It’s Friday evening after a long workweek. You’re tired, hungry, and craving a well-deserved night of catching up on “The Bear.” It’s unbearable to even consider tugging on actual pants to fetch your favorite takeout meal, so you queue up your delivery app of choice.

On the menu tonight? You’re feeling adventurous, so you select a new-to-you spot with delicious photos and fair ratings. When you see your driver steadily moving on the in-app map, though, they’re speeding towards . . . IHOP?

Welcome to the world of ghost kitchens. As tech continues to evolve takeout, the virtual restaurant scene is keeping hungry consumers on their toes. But can it be trusted? And are consumers along for the delivery ride? PS explores.

Experts Featured in This Article

Ernest Baskin, PhD, is an expert in consumer behavior and an associate professor and department chair of food, pharma, and healthcare at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Chris Dane is a chef and the cofounder of Lucky Bird Fried Chicken in Los Angeles.

What Are Virtual Restaurants, Exactly?

First, let’s get introductions out of the way. Virtual kitchens (also known more ominously as “ghost” or “dark” kitchens) are restaurant concepts operating solely for delivery and without a physical dining room. They’re not a new innovation by any means; however, there has been a perceptible surge in virtual restaurant listings since the onset of the pandemic. And if you’ve ever experienced the shock after unknowingly ordering from a — surprise! — ghost kitchen, join the club.

Countless TikTok users have lamented over their virtual kitchen orders, including someone who fell in love with gas station salad and another who likened the delivery model to “catfishing.” Across the internet, others have hurled more biting descriptors, including “suspicious,” “scam,” and “fake ass.”

“Consumers know that digital brands are a little newer to the market, and they haven’t really gotten the trust of the consumer compared to some well-established brands,” Ernest Baskin, PhD, associate professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University, tells PS. “A lot more consumers have the types of horror stories where they order from a virtual restaurant, and the food is not very good. There’s quality issues that are inherent with this concept.”

And likewise, brands are taking note. In 2023, The Verge reported that Uber Eats upped their quality standards for virtual restaurants across the app, as a Wall Street Journal exclusive last year revealed that Uber deleted some 5,000 digital listings on the platform. The platform’s refreshed policy, outlined on the Uber Eats website, maintains that digital kitchens must maintain a rating of at least 4.3 stars and can’t offer duplicate menus across listings; in other words, at least 60 percent of the dishes must be different from the main restaurant and associated virtual storefronts.

“Communicating — and beginning to enforce — these new quality standards for virtual restaurants on Uber Eats is an important step for our program, designed to benefit both consumers and merchants,” says Uber Eats head of virtual restaurants John Mullenholz of the company’s 2023 change in a statement emailed to PS.

DoorDash, meanwhile, rolled out in-app badges to help users spot virtual kitchen concepts. (There’s also, of course, the tried-and-true method of simply researching the restaurant address.) The company also outlined a strict set of virtual restaurant requirements, such as a 50 percent differentiation in menu offerings, distinct imagery, and family-friendly language — as in, no profanity in restaurant or menu-item names.

It’s easy to understand why an existing business might want to open a virtual offshoot: it offers a fresh menu to a new audience, repurposes ingredients already used for the kitchen’s main operations, and allows owners to flex their creative muscles. Still, the back-of-house virtual logistics can strain an already busy kitchen crew.

“That’s why I think we’ve seen, since the pandemic, that a lot of restaurants are paring down their virtual offerings,” Dr. Baskin tells PS. “It’s because they often can’t handle increased traffic at both their brick-and-mortar locations and online.”

Breathing Life to a “Ghost” Kitchen

The flipside? Virtual restaurants can take beloved brick-and-mortar menus to new heights.

Los Angeles fried chicken hotspot, Lucky Bird, has drawn a dedicated following to its Grand Central Market location — and there, you’ll find chef and co-founder Chris Dane serving up homestyle chicken sandwiches and tenders. In 2020, the company expanded its operations with a virtual storefront in Chicago.

While the location shuttered in 2021 due to changes with the kitchen’s hosting parent company, Dane tells PS that the brief run gave Lucky Bird the opportunity to reach a Midwestern market. The delivery-only concept was also a chef’s exercise in trust, and in the lead-up to the virtual kitchen’s launch, Dane personally trained the Chicago staff on how a real Lucky Bird sandwich is assembled.

Still, delivery-only options aren’t always the ideal experience for someone looking to connect with a brand and the people preparing your meal. Customers are less likely to give leeway for less-than-perfect dishes and there’s fewer touchpoints for expert recommendations. With delivery in general, Dane says, “It’s difficult to leave a lasting impression on people with a personal touch. With something like fried chicken, it has a homey, your-grandma-makes-it sort of feel.”

There’s a breadth of difference between a straightforward ghost kitchen, like Lucky Bird Chicago, and a storefront listing that’s a bit more ambiguous. Still, it poses the habitual DoorDasher’s existential dilemma: are we better off knowing our favorite pizza is actually delivered from Chuck E. Cheese, or should we stay blissfully ignorant? Either way you slice it, the quality of your experience might all come down to the real-life humans behind the delivery.

“You can’t be robotic with it,” Dane says. “I tell my cooks, ‘Pretend like your mom is out there. You’re cooking for her. Is that how you’d wrap up a sandwich for your mom?” He recalls telling his Chicago staff, “That’s what I want you guys to serve. Don’t let these shortcomings get in your way.”

These days, that might just be the best-case scenario for Friday night takeout.

Nicolette Baker is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her expertise lies primarily in food, drink, and fashion media, but she enjoys covering all aspects of lifestyle with an accessible approach. She’s written for Food & Wine, Byrdie, Business Insider, VinePair, and Flourish.

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