In Eat, February 2021 by Lauren KruchtenLeave a Comment

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Local ghost kitchens are popping up on food delivery apps.

Most people don’t realize that when they order a fried chicken sandwich from Raleigh’s new FryBird concept, their meal is actually coming out of the kitchen at North Raleigh’s Driftwood Cantina restaurant. Customers aren’t really supposed to know that anyway, says Driftwood and FryBird owner Nunzio Scordo—hence the term “ghost kitchen.”

Ghost kitchens are nothing new, but have gained quite a bit of popularity since the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants to shut down and turn to a curbside pickup and/or delivery model. Galley Solutions (a software company that helps restaurants, caterers and other types of food-related businesses collect and understand data behind their operations) describes a ghost kitchen—aka a virtual brand—as a delivery-only restaurant. Orders are made online and are delivered to be enjoyed off-premise; there is no physical restaurant at which customers can eat or pick up food.

Scordo says that operating a ghost kitchen out of Driftwood Cantina made sense given the substantial size of the kitchen and the resources they have available. The No. 1 seller out of Driftwood Southern Kitchen (Scordo’s previous concept that was replaced by Driftwood Cantina) was fried chicken, so he knew that it would sell. Additionally, Scordo already sources raw chicken for the Cantina menu, so there’s only a few additional ingredients he has to order for the FryBird sandwiches.

Scordo’s rent hasn’t gone up either, and his labor costs are the same. “We’re widening our appeal and everything else stays the same—it’s a huge win-win for anyone that can do it,” Scordo says. “We’re filling in a little market gap. Even if we only do $2,000 a week, it’s $2,000 more than what we were doing last week, and it’s not costing us any more money.”

Raleigh-based catering company Catering Works is currently running two ghost kitchen concepts out of their large catering kitchen—though you’d never know the food came from the same place. One of the concepts, Frites and Taters, specializes in cheese and meat loaded pub fries; baked, split, fried and topped russet potatoes and sweet potatoes; and totchos, a nacho/Tater Tot combination featuring your choice of Buffalo chicken or barbecue pork.

Jill Santa-Lucia, Catering Works president and culinary director, says cheesy fries and loaded baked potatoes were just the type of comfort food everyone was craving when they officially started the ghost kitchen concept in September 2020—six months into the pandemic with no signs of it going away anytime soon. Catering Works’ other concept, Midtown Eats, which started just a month later in October, features some of Santa-Lucia’s favorite signature Catering Works recipes, specifically fresh salads, soups, sandwiches and hand pies.

Like Scordo’s FryBird concept, Santa-Lucia uses some of the most popular delivery apps, including Uber Eats, DoorDash, ChowNow and Grubhub, to deliver food from both Frites and Taters and Midtown Eats to eager, hungry customers. However, Santa-Lucia says that the delivery side of the business is the most problematic given that the delivery apps and its workers are out of her control. She says they’ve had instances where a driver canceled and their chef has had to go out and make the delivery.

Over in Chapel Hill, The Catering Company of Chapel Hill—also known now as Ghost Kitchen Eats since August—has mitigated this delivery issue by reemploying catering staff (out of work due to the pandemic) as drivers. They deliver food from their two ghost kitchen concepts—Bistro 501, which serves traditional American food, and The BBQ Company of Chapel Hill—within a 6-mile radius of their large industrial kitchen.

Becca Nelson, an event planner-turned-marketing person for The Catering Company of Chapel Hill and Ghost Kitchen Eats, says that the main advantage of pivoting to this particular concept during COVID is that by not having a storefront or restaurant, they’re able to keep their operations safe and secure—they don’t have to worry about a customer coming in and exposing the staff to coronavirus. “It’s a way for us, in these really uncertain times, to keep a sustainable business going without the risk of getting shut down,” Nelson adds.

Nelson, Santa-Lucia and Scordo all agree that their ghost kitchen concepts are sustainable and that they will be continuing them post-COVID in some form or another. While the inevitable reopening of restaurants will come soon enough, there’s always going to be a market for food delivery, and FryBird, Frites and Taters, Midtown Eats, Bistro 501 and The BBQ Company of Chapel Hill are all hauntingly delicious choices. So, when hunger strikes… who you gonna call?

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