ghost kitchen also dark kitchen or virtual kitchen

noun [countable]

a kitchen which prepares high-quality, restaurant-style food for delivery only or to supply to various restaurants

'A Carytown restaurant and bar owner is converting one of his two neighborhood establishments to a ghost kitchen model as the coronavirus downturn continues to loom. … His solution is to create urgency for customers at The Jasper by making it into a ghost kitchen that features different pop-up food concepts every night.'

RichmondBizSense 27th July 2020

Eating out is, for me at least, one of life's simple pleasures, and when sitting in a restaurant, my attention is focussed squarely on the food in front of me, my mind barely sparing a thought for the hot, steamy room where there's a hive of activity and a whole lot of hard work going on to bring the indulgences I've just chosen to my plate. And I'm guessing that's true for the majority of restaurant-goers – as long as the food that arrives is tasty and we can be confident that it was prepared under reasonably hygienic conditions, we don't really have much psychological investment in the place it comes from – it could have been prepared metres from our table, but for all we know, it might have come from a building several miles down the road. It's this kind of 'invisibility' of most restaurant kitchens that is exploited to a whole new dimension in what's now commonly known as a ghost kitchen.

Though it might conjure up amusing images of puffy white ghosts in chef's hats floating near ovens, or vegetables being chopped with knives in mid-air, of course a ghost kitchen has nothing to do with supernatural beings. The term refers simply to a professional cooking facility that prepares restaurant-quality food, but has no dining area and is designed for delivery only, either directly to consumers or sometimes as a supplier to other restaurants.

Ghost kitchens have become an increasingly popular concept in recent years, not just as start-ups supplying online delivery platforms, but even for popular established restaurants as a kind of add-on to meet demand

Ghost kitchens have become an increasingly popular concept in recent years, not just as start-ups supplying online delivery platforms, but even for popular established restaurants as a kind of add-on to meet demand, i.e. 'If you can't get a table at one of our restaurants, why not eat our food at home?' They're a sound business model where demand is good, because not providing dining facilities dramatically reduces rent, labour and utility costs, and often means that the kitchens themselves can be located in cheaper areas rather than more expensive, high foot-fall locations. Unsurprisingly, the term has gained substantial currency in the context of the coronavirus crisis, when bricks-and-mortar restaurants across the globe have been forced to become ghost kitchens. This was the only way to survive in local and national lockdowns, which spirited away customers and abruptly dumped these eateries in 'ghost towns'.

There's also a related expression ghost restaurant, which is a narrower term in that it refers to food produced in relation to one restaurant brand only. A ghost kitchen, by contrast, is often not a brand per se, and may prepare food on behalf of a range of restaurant brands – in much the same way as online supplier Amazon gives different listings for the same product, a dish produced in a ghost kitchen might appear on various restaurant menus under different names.

Background – ghost kitchen

The term ghost kitchen has been in circulation for the last couple of years or so, and has an interesting array of lexical variants associated with it, among which are cloud kitchen, dark kitchen, delivery kitchen, shadow kitchen and virtual kitchen. Terms like virtual/cloud kitchen are of course based on the connection with online delivery platforms and a parallel with 'unseen' entities via the internet. Shadow kitchen may perhaps take inspiration from terms like shadow boxing, which describes boxing training involving an 'imaginary' opponent. Dark kitchen has presumably emerged on the pattern of newer expressions like dark pool (financial trading in which share prices are 'hidden' and not publicly available until deals are done) and dark store (a retail unit that looks a bit like a supermarket but is where staff collect together online grocery orders for delivery, rather than a shop open to the public).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words. She also writes materials for Onestopenglish.

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This article was first published 3rd November 2020.

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