The food industry has managed to squeeze about 10 years of innovation into just 18 months thanks to the pandemic. This in turn has given rise to a variety of ghost kitchen models that have allowed restaurants and food brands to increase sales and reduce their operating costs.
Now that restaurant operators have seen that online delivery may likely be the bulk of their sales going forward, we will continue to see them double down on delivery and find new ways to become more efficient and technology-driven in terms of menu development, supply chain efficiency, direct-to-consumer distribution solutions, and kitchen automation.
Here are five trends that will continue to shape the rapidly evolving ghost kitchen industry beyond the pandemic.
1. Leveraging data and AI to inform menu and product development
Data can provide invaluable insight to any customer-facing industry, and ghost kitchens are no exception. Ultimately, data regarding brand preferences, pricing strategy, ingredients, and the popularity of cuisine types in certain regions can inform everything from menu design to marketing strategy for delivery-only food brands. Examining customer ordering data can also inform restaurants where their particular cuisines may fill a gap on a hyper-local basis, and where they might want to offer their products via a ghost kitchen versus a bricks and mortar location.
For example, JustKitchen has partnered with two Michelin-rated restaurants, Orchid by Peng and 3 Coins, to create delivery-only menus. Their brick and mortar locations previously were situated in very high-density areas of Taipei. By partnering with us, they were able to test the demand for their food in other parts of Taiwan without having to invest in real estate first. By examining the customer ordering data on a trial basis, we were able to see that the demand for this fine-dining style of food was very strong throughout areas of Taiwan they previously weren’t serving.
Additionally, brands that are interested in expanding into new countries can use a ghost kitchen to test out the popularity of the food on a trial basis before taking the leap and investing in the additional real estate and marketing that a global expansion normally requires. They can also test menu items on a trial basis and use ordering data to determine whether certain menu items are a fit for a new market — for example, a North American market versus an Asian market — before developing and rolling out a final concept and menu.
2. Delivery-only food brands going direct-to-consumer
Whereas today many ghost kitchens and delivery-only brands rely solely on third-party food delivery platforms to connect with customers, in the future we are going to see more ghost kitchens and food brands going direct-to-consumer. Established food delivery platforms will more frequently be used as a test for brands to get initial exposure through the platform’s users.
Once operators have found the right product-market fit, they will benefit from continuing to invest in the brand and building out new distribution channels, just as many startups first launch products on a platform like Shopify to test the market before building their own online sales portals and investing in marketing and distribution.
3. Environmentally conscious initiatives to reduce packaging and food waste
Food waste is a growing global environmental and social issue, and restaurants are one of the world’s biggest contributors to it. In the U.S. alone, it’s estimated that restaurants account for 22-33 billion pounds of food waste each year. But ghost kitchens really do have an opportunity to be leaders in the restaurant industry in terms of reducing food waste.
For example, using technology, ghost kitchen operators have the ability to more carefully track historical delivery data to better predict demand and thus more accurately plan supply, which can greatly reduce food waste.
In addition, real estate players that host multiple ghost kitchen operators in a single facility, such as CloudKitchens, are able to leverage economies of scale with suppliers to boost efficiency and lower costs for operators. Similarly, ghost kitchen operators that offer grocery delivery in addition to meal delivery can take advantage of the FIFO (First In, First Out) rule: ingredients and supplies can be used in both meal preparation and grocery delivery services, reducing the chance of food going off before it’s used.
It’s no secret that the rising demand for online food delivery also means more packaging that gets tossed in the garbage. I believe that as the industry matures, more ghost kitchen operators will be held accountable for their packaging. At JustKitchen we use 100 percent recyclable or compostable packaging and paper straws instead of plastic straws. I believe, and hope, that we will see more ghost kitchen operators taking the initiative to replace single-use plastics with more environmentally friendly materials in future.
4. Autonomous food delivery
A big challenge that ghost kitchens and online food delivery platforms alike experienced during the pandemic was a shortage of delivery drivers. As demand for online food delivery exploded during the pandemic, many third-party delivery platforms found themselves short of drivers.
Additionally, many people were concerned about drivers handling food hygienically and following contact-free drop off protocols. In some cities, autonomous delivery robots have provided a viable solution to these issues, as they can bypass obstacles such as traffic and human-to-human contact during delivery.
However, realistically delivery-by-robot only works in core downtown areas where the delivery destination is relatively near to where the food is prepared. Self-driving cars that can travel longer distances will likely provide a more viable autonomous delivery option in future, but we are not there quite yet.
5. Modularized / container ghost kitchens
As the industry evolves and cooking technologies become more automated (check out Flippy, the burger-flipping robot), kitchens and everything from cooking to packaging and delivery will become more streamlined and less costly. In general, if care is taken to design menus and preparation methods that are highly efficient, delivery-only food brands will continue to evolve so that they need less space, less equipment, and perhaps even less staff to operate.
When you need less space to operate in, you can invest in setting up a greater number of smaller kitchen facilities that occupy less real estate but cover more ground. Modular kitchens can be set up in spaces as small as a shipping container, can be deployed almost anywhere, and can still produce excellent quality products.
Many ghost kitchens, such as Reef Technologies, are already implementing modular kitchens and although it can be a trial and error process at first, this is likely a trend we will see more of in the future.
At the end of the day, successful ghost kitchen operations are all about efficiency, and that can be thought of in two parts.
On the restaurant side – implementing technology that enables a single ghost kitchen operator to handle multiple brands on multiple delivery platforms out of one kitchen will improve staffing efficiency and reduce food wastage.
On the delivery side – having multiple restaurants and multiple brands concentrated in a small footprint, and technology that enables effective queuing and batching of orders – allows couriers and third-party logistics to batch multiple orders from one pick-up location to deliver to multiple destinations.
This not only significantly boosts the efficiency of the logistics providers for the last mile, but most importantly, ensures the customer receives the highest quality product possible. Ultimately, ghost kitchens that can consistently deliver high-quality, on-brand products will be the winners in this increasingly competitive marketplace.
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