Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Wings are huge in the ghost kitchen realm. If you see a wings shop on a delivery app, assume it’s a ghost.
They didn’t know it at the time, but Alexandra Garcia and Jorge Santillan were about to start a ghost kitchen.
Garcia had lost her cooking job to the pandemic. She wanted to open her own place, but didn’t have a lot of resources, and restaurants were mostly doing delivery-only anyway. With pandemic shutdown orders still going strong, a low-risk idea occurred to Santillan, her husband. A way to hedge their bets with an all-delivery concept.
Gaslamp Tavern’s Chef Nick Brune says, “We were kind of working our way towards a cloud kitchen model for the future… covid just fast-forwarded that.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Their restaurant would exist only as a digital storefront, a name and logo appearing on the search results of a delivery app. Orders for Fluffy´s Waffles & Pancakes would go to a business called GreatFoods2Go, which is really Garcia, cooking in a rented commercial kitchen. The business would need no dining tables, no expensive remodel, no sign welcoming customers through the door. The only people who needed to show up were the city’s gig economy fleet of delivery drivers.
Santillan would soon realize he’d recreated the idea behind ghost kitchens. “At that time, I didn’t know this was a trend,” Santillan insists with a laugh. “I was feeling like the smartest guy alive for ten days!”
Also known as virtual restaurants or cloud kitchens, delivery-only restaurant brands first emerged several years ago as a romanticized offshoot of what is now a $45 billion a year restaurant delivery industry.
One commercial kitchen owner, Yossi Reinstein, told me roughly half of the 24 rentals in his Hollister Kitchens are now occupied by ghost kitchen operations.
Photograph by Ian Anderson
The original zeitgeist of ghost kitchens resembled Garcia’s and Santillan’s story. Hopping on the backs of delivery tech was held up as a clever workaround that upstart chefs could exploit to find a market for their food, without having to invest in pesky, archaic concepts such as real estate, atmosphere, or service staff. Ghost kitchens were disruptive. Cool. They had an air of mystery.
But as ghost kitchens evolved, these same attributes have obscured who exactly is making the food behind such quirky digital facades as Fluffy’s. Increasingly, the kitchens behind the ghost brands aren’t run by upstarts at all. They don’t normally advertise themselves as ghost kitchens, content to pass as just another new restaurant you haven’t tried yet. And in most cases, they aren’t using ghost brands to create a new business so much as they are trying to obscure one. Because, if you pull at the thread of a ghost restaurant, you will probably be surprised to find that a familiar face is making food at the other end.
Like when I went looking the source of a fried chicken virtual restaurant, Roost Republic. And found myself standing inside the Sherman Heights Jack in the Box.
Finding the kitchen behind the ghost isn’t super challenging: delivery apps usually list the pick-up address somewhere on the virtual storefront. What allows familiar restaurants to hide their ghost kitchens in plain sight is that a delivery customer doesn’t have a need to think twice about the kitchen’s location.
Darin Loesch will likely continue to cook for the virtual brands once the pandemic ends. He plans to put more resources behind his own ghost kitchen, Bombshell Wings, using the On a Roll catering vehicle to deliver orders without all the middlemen.
Photograph by Ian Anderson
But with only a little googling, you can quickly figure out the real restaurant behind the virtual one. For example, Aussie Grill is really selling Outback Steakhouse food. Most famously, it was revealed that ghost restaurant Pasqually’s Pizza was really just a front for Chuck E. Cheese. A tacit admission that customers never visited its arcade pizza chain for the food.
Perhaps the ghostliest of a ghost kitchens I found is a Fatburger in South Bay. The chain died off everywhere south of Escondido years ago, but reappeared recently on apps, exclusively available for delivery. That address leads to the newly opened Hurricane Grill & Wings in Chula Vista. Turns out, the same restaurant group owns both brands. In fact, Hurricane Grill was first introduced to Southern California as a virtual restaurant operating out of physical Fatburger locations.
It’s not just national chains that have caught on to the possibilities of ghost kitchens. Plenty of small local businesses have likewise created virtual brands. For example, the menu of Taco Bout Breakfast comes right out of Porkyland Mexican Grill in Carmel Valley. The Miramar counter shop Pastalini also does business as Mothership Pizza. Delivery sushi joint Chris’s Sushi repurposes the sushi menu always available at southeast Chinese restaurant Asia Wok.
Robert Watkins secured a cottage license and started cooking up a menu of fried chicken, wings, and pork chops in his Logan Heights apartment, going by the name Superior Soul Food.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
One of the more interesting is a South Asian-styled fast-food menu for ghost brand Heer Ranja. It takes its name from a classic Punjabi tale of star-crossed lovers: a nobleman’s daughter and a farm boy forced apart by the caste system. It’s a heartbreaking story, but it provides a unique brand for a restaurant that only exists as a construct of Hillcrest restaurant India Palace. And a provocative brand story can make a difference when your customers are scrolling through lists of restaurants on their smartphones.
It probably goes without saying that restaurants doubling as ghost kitchens has become more likely during the pandemic. Most of the above businesses are only looking to pad their delivery sales, because the steady flow of in-person customers they’ve come to rely on has disappeared. They’re working from home now, or out of work, or staying away from restaurants and scrubbing down their takeout packages with hand sanitizer.
It’s the same reason downtown San Diego looked so empty this winter, bereft of the conventioneers, tourists, and office workers who usually keep its restaurants cooking. In East Village, the storefront of nationwide hot dog chain Dog Haus Biergarten looked all but abandoned, its large windows barricaded with plywood boards. Some had been tagged with graffiti, and a cluster of homeless men loitered nearby.
However, the door wasn’t locked. And though its indoor dining room remained off limits, Dog Haus was open for business. Only delivery drivers drifted in and out, at whatever frequency people ordered chili dogs and sausages for home delivery.
Except, the drivers weren’t all there for Dog Haus orders. Some were there picking up orders for Bad Mutha Clucka, the brand Dog Haus ownership designed to resemble an irreverent Nashville hot chicken startup. There’s also an all-day breakfast concept called Badass Breakfast Burritos.
You won’t find Superior Soul Food on delivery apps. Though the kitchen is licensed and its dishes prepared by certified food handlers, third party apps won’t deliver cottage businesses, only restaurants and commercial kitchens. Instead, the business handles its own orders, and Watkins’ roommate, a partner in the business, handles deliveries.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Last spring, Dog Haus splintered off a whole slew of virtual brands to pad its franchises’ take-out business. The team behind Dog Haus has been relatively open about their affiliation with these brands — they’ve been written about in restaurant trade magazines. But it’s safe to assume customers who order vegan bánh mì burgers delivered from the virtual vegetarian restaurant Plant B aren’t exactly aware that it comes from the same kitchen responsible for creating the pastrami-topped Italian sausage.
It turns out, the most ingenious turn of Santillan’s business plan for GreatFoods2Go wasn’t the idea to invent a delivery-only restaurant brand. It’s that he quickly jumped ahead to reach the same logical conclusion that Dog Haus has: if you’re taking delivery orders through a website, what’s to stop you from opening a second restaurant from the same kitchen? Or a third? Why be one just one brand, trying to stand out in the crowd, when you could just as easily pretend to be the whole crowd?
“This is like fishing,” Santillan explains, “If you have a restaurant, you are fishing with a line. But if you create a multi-brand virtual kitchen, you are fishing with a big net.”
Chef Phillip Esteban established Rice Bowls For All under a one-for-one model. Meaning that, with every meal delivered to San Diegans at home, Esteban and team would provide a meal to someone who needed it.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Within three months of launching, GreatFood2Go was churning out meals for five different virtual restaurants, with plans to add more. In addition to Fluffy’s Waffles & Pancakes, Garcia cooks menus for brands including Here Comes the Sun, Las Ingrata Hamburgers, and Juan Smokey’s Pork Sandwiches.
Finding Fluffy´s Waffles & Pancakes proved a little more complicated than ghost kitchens operating out of established restaurants. That’s because GreatFoods2Go does ghost kitchens the old fashioned way, so to speak. Out of a commercial kitchen.
Early in my search for ghost kitchens, I had thought I would track down more commercial kitchen tenants. But commercial kitchen operators turned out to be a reticent bunch. They’re not willing to share which or how many ghost kitchens worked out of their spaces.
One commercial kitchen owner, Yossi Reinstein, told me roughly half of the 24 rentals in his Hollister Kitchens are now occupied by ghost kitchen operations. But he refused to name any, for fear they would be poached by competitors once this story published.
Sure enough, I learned two or three well-funded commercial kitchen brands from outside San Diego have imminent plans to open locations here. Tenants tell Reinstein, “Just so you know, they’ll give me a month free if I come over there….”
I knew Fluffy’s Waffles & Pancakes and other brands cooked in Hollister Kitchens, an unmarked rectangle of a building just off the 5 freeway where Chula Vista meets Imperial Beach. But to link the brand to GreatFoods2Go I had to call nearly every number on the building’s tenant list, leaving messages asking about ghost kitchens. Only Jorge Santillan called back.
Esteban will soon give his Filipino rice bowl concept a physical location at the Liberty Public Market, going by the name White Rice.
Photograph by Ian Anderson
For all his marketing creativity, not every brand concept cooked by GreatFoods2Go is Santillan’s doing. Just throwing a bunch of brand concepts across a few delivery apps won’t automatically generate orders. The competition out there is more sophisticated than you think.
It wasn’t long after Santillan’s ghost kitchen eureka moment that he hooked up with one the industry’s biggest players, Future Foods. Along with competing agencies Next Bite and Virtual Dining Concepts, Future Foods is a sort of virtual restaurant marketing company that helps ghost kitchens refine their brands and menus. These digital marketing companies neither cook, take the order, nor deliver the food they sell. But they do know how to capture customers.
They have inserted themselves into the restaurant delivery supply chain as brand developers. And what the brand developers have really done is drive the virtual kitchen concept to its algorithmic conclusion. The companies track the user data of delivery apps (DoorDash, Uber Eats, GrubHub, Postmates) to learn how delivery customers shop. Then they reverse engineer brands to rise to the top of search results, usually by targeting our habitual cravings.
“We leverage data from thousands of restaurants across the country,” says Next Bite’s web site Future Foods’ notes: “Our marketing is backed by data, so nothing is left to chance.”
While the delivery apps fulfill their role of processing meal orders and farming them out to delivery drivers, the brand developers turn around and farm out the meals themselves. For those, the agencies turn to — you guessed it — local restaurants and commercial kitchen tenants.
As the Future Foods website rather bluntly pitches it: “We create brands… You cook the food... They deliver the food… We pay you.”
It’s been a couple of years since brand developers have emerged as an intermediary market within the restaurant delivery ecosystem. But their pitch to chefs and restaurateurs during the pandemic has felt inevitable: make up for your lost business by putting your underworked kitchen to use cooking the delivery orders we capture.
Some kitchen operators speculate that the delivery apps themselves might be behind the branding agencies, but whether or not it’s true, there’s not a lot of transparency either way. I got no replies from these agencies for this story, but their enlisted kitchen partners described to me how the operation works. They take your existing restaurant style and match it to a library of brands the company has created. Usually, the agency will recommend signing on for several brands, to increase total volume of orders coming in.
They flood the apps with their made-up brands, occasionally boosting their visibility by sponsoring discounts to be highlighted as special deals for those looking to save money on their order. A single brand will pop up on delivery apps across the country, as if it were a national franchise. But whenever an online customer bites, the order goes to a hired restaurant kitchen for fulfillment.
Which highlights one unadvertised difference between these reusable virtual brands and traditional franchises: from city to city, ghost kitchen brands don’t make the same food. A Big Mac may taste the same wherever you buy it, but the same ghost kitchen order turns out differently depending who cooks it.
The restaurants taking orders for these ghost brands use their own ingredients and their own approach to cooking the menus the brand generators give them. Fried chicken has proven a particularly successful virtual restaurant model, for example. However, a downtown San Diegan ordering fried chicken from ghost kitchen Thick Chick will get it from a local purveyor who brines boneless chicken thighs in buttermilk before frying them. Someone ordering Thick Chick in Edison, New Jersey will have a different experience.
The brands aren’t devised for continuity or even longevity. One ghost kitchen cook told me he’d viewed well over a hundred different brands catered by Future Foods, and another source suggested that could be the tip of the iceberg.
Occasionally, the brand may be intentionally quirky to attract attention, such as the case of Bitch, Don’t Grill My Cheese. But most of the time, they seem internationally unmemorable, so you can’t be sure whether or not you’ve heard anything about the place, positive or negative. Most important is that the name of the ghost kitchen strongly hints at, or explicitly spells out, specific, popular food items it sells. So you get names like Ranch Burger, Brooklyn Calzones, Wham Bam Burrito, Wild Wild Wings, Just Wingin It, Wings Dynasty, or Wings Squad.
Oh yes, a lot of Wings. Wings are huge in the ghost kitchen realm. If you see a wings shop on a delivery app, assume it’s a ghost.
In fact, I traced no fewer than five virtual wings restaurants to a single sandwich shop.
Most of the wings restaurants are tied into Future Foods and Next Bite, which push brands including Killer Wings, Szechwings, Cupid’s Wings Wild Wild Wings, Wings Dynasty, Firebelly Wings, and Just Wingin It. These virtual brands neither supply wings nor recipes to their purveyors. They merely offer menu suggestions, then promote the brands heavily on the delivery apps.
One virtual restaurateur I spoke with cited a 30-50-percent rise in wings business after hooking up with Future Foods. Under its model, no single wings business needs to meet a minimum threshold to stay in business. It’s enough that they generate orders.
In the case of Just Wingin It, I traced the same brand doing business out of two different, unrelated restaurants: Brewski’s Bar & Arcade in Miramar, and On A Roll Deli in Sorrento Valley.
Generally, the ghost business offered by Future Foods, et al, is intended to supplement existing restaurant business, rather than constitute a standalone business model. However, during the pandemic, some, including caterer Josh Feinberg, have found that an entire stable of ghost kitchens can help keep business afloat, at least in the near term.
One of the more active ghost kitchen purveyors in San Diego, Feinberg’s pre-covid specialty was St. Louis-style baby back ribs. Before the pandemic began, he established his Rolling Rib catering business in Los Angeles, and last year moved down here with the goal of expanding to San Diego. A year later, he is instead cooking food behind as many as 12 virtual restaurant brands.
“Survival. That’s what prompted the idea,” he says. “My catering company got shut down by California… I had to pivot to something.”
Feinberg has been working with all three of the aforementioned brand generators — Future Foods, Next Bite, and Virtual Dining Concepts — preparing food under the brands Bitch, Don’t Grill My Cheese, Thick Chick, and Ranch Burger, among others. He’s also generated several of his own brands, including Stuff Yo Face Bomb Ass Burgers, Philly Original Cheesesteaks, and Mama’s Golden Fried Chicken.
Though he remains hopeful his own brands will gather some momentum, he’d much rather be catering right now. But ghost kitchens keep him cooking, and working with the brand developers has everything to do with how the delivery apps order the results when users search for restaurants or cuisines. “The way the algorithms work, it’s better to have multiple things out there,” Feinberg says.
When working with the brand developers, he adds, it’s critical to sign on for as many brands as possible to create the volume in orders necessary to overcome the high cost of doing business with them and delivery apps both. “You’re looking at 40 to 45 percent off the top.”
The real trick to operating so many distinct concepts at once, according to Feinberg, is “using a lot of the same ingredients.” Hence multiple concepts focusing on burgers and fried chicken. It’s the same reason Seaport Village Mexican restaurant Margarita’s Cantina doubles online as Wham Bam Burrito, while its sister restaurant, San Diego Burger Co., fulfills the ghost brand ASAP Burger.
Though data may be the divining force for those seeking to top search results, there’s another pillar of virtual restaurants that drives its own traffic: celebrity ghost kitchens.
Social media celebrity, first of all. One of the more successful is MrBeast, a YouTube stuntman and ersatz performance artist who commands 53 million subscribers. The guy pulled more than 60 million to watch him eat “the world’s largest slice of pizza,” so I guess it stands to reason his fame can support a virtual network for MrBeast Burger virtual restaurants — claiming to cover 250 cities, over three dozen states.
Most celebrity ghost kitchens operate this way, directing fans to ghost kitchens burrowed within hundreds of cities across most of the country. Probably the most well-known celebrity attaching her name to delivery is Mariah Carey. The Grammy award-winning diva solicits fans for the brand Mariah’s Cookies, pledging “freshly baked cookies directly to your door!”
In his Southeastern San Diego catering kitchen, Josh Feinberg bakes some of those cookies.
But order cookies closer to downtown, and they’ll be baked by Buca di Beppo, the Italian restaurant chain built around the atmosphere of checkered tablecloths and walls cluttered with vintage photos. With interior dining banned, the chain has sealed off its inner rooms, and re-purposed its host stand into a streamlined takeout operation, frequently trafficked by delivery drivers picking up for no fewer than five brands in addition to its own.
All the celebrity business comes through the third marketer in the brand development trifecta, Virtual Dining Concepts. The agency has its share of generic concepts — City Burger Co., House of Subs, all the way to Soup N Greens — but key to its business is a roster of celebrity hawkers having nothing to do with food, whether it’s Saved By the Bell’s Mario Lopez or chart topping rapper, Tyga, whose ghost kitchen TygaBites serves nothing but chicken nuggets.
On behalf of these associations, Virtual Dining recruits caterers and restaurant kitchens — someone standing by in a kitchen ready to bake Mariah’s cookies on cue.
Actual food celebrities have also been getting more into ghost kitchens during the pandemic, and all went straight for the ghost kitchen tried and true: fried chicken, burgers, and wings.
YouTube food host Sam the Cooking Guy sends burgers and sandwiches out of a restaurant he plans to open in Seaport Village. Food Network star Guy Fieri has instantly taken his Flavortown ghost kitchen national. And out of his restaurant, International Smoke, celebrity chef Michael Mina has lately announced a pair of ghost kitchen concepts, Tokyo Hot Chicken and Bourbon Burger Bar.
And unlike the furtive ghost kitchens working like stabs in the dark for our attention, these projects are announced with press releases. Advertising your own ghost kitchen has itself become a marketing tool; we’ve exhausted the cycle, and now the ghostwashing backlash can begin.
Yes, it’s a cold, cynical, ghostly world out there right now, dominated by data and crass endorsement. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find underdogs to root for in the ghost kitchen world. They can still be pretty inspiring. And they might prove virtual brand generators don’t hold a monopoly on data.
Chef Nick Brune has taken up with downtown’s Gaslamp Tavern to help convert it into a food hall. In other words, a collection of several discreet food kiosks, each with specific, narrowed down menus. Exactly what the algorithms have taught virtual brand developers to recreate online.
If it sounds like something ready-made for the modern ghost kitchen industry, Brune says that was the end goal. “We were kind of working our way towards a cloud kitchen model for the future… covid just fast-forwarded that.”
Eventually, the food hall will serve its original purpose — giving bar patrons plenty of fast options between rounds. But until that lifestyle returns, it’s been launching as a delivery concept instead. “We scraped together a few brands, started testing them out and collecting some data,” Brune says, adding, “A lot of people don’t focus on that ever in the restaurant world, but I think it’s time to be a more data-driven industry.” Among other things, Brune has been tracking customer acquisition costs, determining which kind of marketing attracts traffic, and which kind of foods convert to sales.
And what does their data show?
“That people like fried chicken.”
The first brands to emerge from Gaslamp Tavern have been Ghost Fried Chicken, followed by Tacos El Tuerto, and the San Diego Tuna Company. They’re also developing a salad concept, and a breakfast brand, Killer B’s.
“It’s like anything else, when you see the top growing food companies out there, they all do one thing really, really well.”
Not to be forgotten in all this is that one thing people can do really, really well to run a successful ghost kitchen is cook.
Robert Watkins, for example. The former Navy chef is another example of someone who lost his cooking job during the pandemic, and seized his opportunity by opening a low-risk delivery restaurant. Watkins secured a cottage license and started cooking up a menu of fried chicken, wings, and pork chops in his Logan Heights apartment, going by the name Superior Soul Food.
“I decided, ‘Hey, I can cook pretty good,’” Watkins says. “‘Let’s start a restaurant.’”
Though the home-cooked fare echoes the data-friendly choices we’ve grown used to, Superior Soul Food genuinely delivers on its name. You won’t find it on delivery apps, anyway. Though Superior’s kitchen is licensed and its dishes are prepared by certified food handlers, third party apps won’t deliver for cottage businesses, only restaurants and commercial kitchens. Instead, the business handles its own orders, and Watkins’ roommate, a partner in the business, handles deliveries.
This set-up requires a different set of marketing rules, managed by another Watkins friend and partner, marketing professional Derrick Dixon. They’ve advertised the business with Instagram and Facebook ads, but also relied on positive word of mouth around the neighborhood.
Some of that word of mouth grew out of some old-fashioned hustle. “I cooked up a few sample plates,” says Watkins, “and I walked them over to the shipyards and handed out cards.”
Most days, the home restaurant sells out, so Watkins and partners are starting to look towards their next step. “We’re definitely outgrowing the kitchen we’re in right now,” he says, “We’re looking to expand into a food truck in the next two months.”
In 2020, none plied the ghost kitchen concept better than chef Phillip Esteban.
When the first stay-at-home order dropped, Esteban had already left his role developing globally inspired recipes for the Consortium Holdings restaurant group. As a young chef, he’d cooked every cultural cuisine imaginable in vaunted eateries around San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, and New York City. Now, he would put his experience toward opening the first restaurant of his own. His goal was to bring an elevated take on the food of his own Filipino heritage to his home turf, National City.
The pandemic would prove disruptive, not only to that project, but to the catering business Esteban has kept running on the side. He was operating Craft Meals out of a commercial kitchen, working with a small team to prepare a quantity of weekday lunches to feed corporate clients, mostly office employees. Usually simple takes on California cuisine.
When offices closed, Craft Meals’ business dried up. Esteban might have closed up shop. He went with a better idea.
Within days of losing his lunchtime contracts, he revamped the Craft Meals concept, converting it to a home delivery restaurant taking orders over Instagram, under the name Rice Bowls for All. It became arguably the best local restaurant story of the year, for a couple of good reasons.
First of all, it has succeeded in popularizing Filipino dishes. Not with the fine dining approach he still plans to bring to a future restaurant, but with $12 rice bowls based on traditional Filipino garlic rice dishes called silogs. He constructed approachable versions of Filipino dishes such as chicken tocino, lechon pork, and vegetarian-friendly sisig, turning them into photogenic dishes that local Instagrammers would find irresistible.
The concept has caught on so well that it won’t be going anywhere when the pandemic ends. In April, Esteban will give his Filipino rice bowl concept a physical location at the Liberty Public Market, going by the name White Rice.
But this ghost kitchen has had impacted much more than Esteban’s career. That’s because he established Rice Bowls For All under a one-for-one model. Meaning that, with every meal delivered to San Diegans at home, Esteban and team would provide a meal to someone who needed it.
Initially, the plan was to provide meals for first responders and health care workers. But early on, Esteban says family members who worked in health care pointed out to Esteban that people working the front lines were by default in possession of the one thing that guaranteed they could remain well fed: a job. Meanwhile, untold thousands of San Diegans were out of work, cut off from their regular food sources, and in many cases, going hungry.
So Rice Bowls started delivering meals to the hungry instead. Working in conjunction with chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, Father Joe’s Villages, and other charitable organizations, Esteban’s efforts have provided meals to nursing homes, to out of work restaurant professionals, and others in need. He’s worked with local fishermen to distribute seafood dishes under the concept Fish for Families.
To date, Rice Bowl and the concepts branching out from it have fed 250,000 meals to San Diegans who need them most. A quarter million full bellies, not counting all the ghost kitchen diners who crave them.
It’s without doubt an inspiration. It’s amazing what a ghost kitchen concept can do, especially when delivery giants, analytics companies, and celebrities aren’t standing by to take their cuts.