Cancel OK

Ghost kitchens don’t work for everyone

The burger was great, but a ghost kitchen doesn’t really make for a fun branded experience.

While the past 18 months have been brutal for the foodservice industry, one area has been booming.

So-called “ghost kitchens” are expanding rapidly, especially with seed money from start-up investors.

While several retailers like Cincinnati, OH-based Kroger Company have trialed ghost kitchen concepts, the rapid expansion of pandemic-related foodservice pickup and delivery are really where they shine.

Experts wonder if ghost kitchens and consumer attitudes toward takeout will change the landscape forever. I watched this great report from CNBC about dark kitchens in the U.K., and proprietors really paint a picture of efficiency and access .

And shopping malls are looking to convert food courts into a ghost kitchen concept to help revive lagging foot traffic. 

But as consumers are venturing back into dining rooms in-person, will they remain relevant? In-person dining experiences are heavily reliant on branding and atmosphere, and that’s not what you get from a ghost kitchen.

Take my experience with MrBeast Burger, a chain started in December 2020 by YouTuber MrBeast, aka Jimmy Donaldson and friends.

The original concept was a free restaurant—something MrBeast videos are known for, and the reason my sons love him so much. MrBeast literally gives away money, video game consoles, houses, cars—you name it.

After the original prank video aired, the company started a burger chain with both physical locations and ghost kitchens. In just a few months, it had already opened more than 600 locations nationwide, fueled by the low start-up costs of ghost kitchens.

My sons caught wind of a MrBeast burger location in Austin, TX, so we had to give it a try.

After our experience, I’m not sure ghost kitchens are right for a branded restaurant experience.

Ghost kitchens are essentially a commissary where many different restaurant products can be assembled by one crew. They’ve gained a lot of popularity, especially during the pandemic, because they’re essentially designed for delivery and carryout only.

To place an order, you either have to download the app or use a third-party delivery provider like DoorDash.

I recommend using third-party delivery instead of picking up at the ghost kitchen itself.

Here’s why: the “restaurant” was a sketchy, unmarked food truck in a Boost Mobile parking lot surrounded by strange people and rush hour traffic.

I’m not kidding. We pulled up and couldn’t figure out where to get the food. There was this mysterious blue trailer with no visible MrBeast branding at the end of the tiny parking lot. I figured that must be it.

There were two people inside, an older woman who appeared to be doing the cooking, and a younger woman handling the order tech. the younger woman asked for my name, looked around, and didn’t have an order.

She apologized because her tablet had crashed, and she had to restart it. When she did, our order popped up.

We stood around in a rundown parking lot while they made our food, surrounded by the hectic noise of rush hour traffic. A DoorDash driver rolled up looking for MrBeast burger, to pick up an order, and also didn’t realize she had the right place.

After about 10 minutes of waiting, our order was ready. We took it to a nearby neighborhood park and had a picnic.

The burgers were excellent, the fries were meh (seriously, I’ve had better from a middle school cafeteria), the packaging was fun, but the overall experience was a letdown.

Ghost kitchens are great for expanding concepts, but not so great for an immersive experience. My kids expected the magic of their favorite YouTuber; they got a rundown trailer in a busy parking lot.

I don’t think too many brands would survive in this environment. A little bite of MrBeast was enough to make my kids happy for an Instagram photo, but I don’t know if they’d want to go back.

This is a column that appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the whole issue. 

Pamela Riemenschneider is Retail Editor for Blue Book Services