Molly Jewkes came across a new restaurant prominently featured on Postmates while scrolling through the food delivery app last month.
She decided to order dinner from the restaurant, Chicken Sammy’s, thinking she was supporting a local Portland business.
But her chicken sandwich arrived in a red container with utensils from Red Robin. A sticker with a picture of a chicken was affixed to the plastic bag the food came in.
“It made me feel like I was duped into buying something that wasn’t what I thought it was,” said Jewkes, 29. “Red Robin is a big national chain. I don’t know why they would be advertising their food as different restaurants other than to confuse people.”
What Jewkes was ordering from was Red Robin’s version of a “ghost kitchen.”
Ghost kitchens began popping up before the coronavirus pandemic with startups like REEF Technology and CloudKitchens offering a delivery-only model where the same kitchen staff cook food from multiple brands out of one small space or food cart trailer.
The concept has exploded during the pandemic because it offers a way for brands to offer food for delivery without the overhead costs of operating a full restaurant space. Market research firm Euromonitor believes ghost kitchens could be a $1 trillion industry worldwide by 2030.
Portlanders were introduced to the ghost kitchen model last April when celebrity chef David Chang’s fried chicken chain, Fuku, began showing up on food delivery apps in the Portland area. It turned out that Chang’s company hadn’t expanded to Portland, but had licensed the right to sell its chicken sandwiches to REEF Technology.
The move was met with a wave of criticism from local chefs who felt the national chain was profiting off the pandemic while local businesses were struggling to stay afloat. That prompted Fuku to pause the rollout, but it didn’t stop ghost kitchens from taking hold in Portland.
There are numerous ghost kitchens advertising their delivery-only food in Portland on Postmates, DoorDash, Grubhub and other delivery apps. It’s often very hard to distinguish between those brands and the local brick-and-mortar restaurants that use the same online delivery services. DoorDash labels virtual brands, but it takes some scrolling to find those labels. Other apps don’t have any labeling that distinguishes ghost kitchens from local restaurants.
What Red Robin is doing, though, is a progression of the ghost kitchen model that makes it especially challenging for consumers to tell who is actually selling the food.
Red Robin is a publicly traded restaurant chain based in Colorado with 570 locations nationwide. It reported nearly $870 million in revenue last year.
The company operates three ghost brands — Chicken Sammy’s, The Wing Dept. and Fresh Set — out of restaurants across the Portland area and throughout the country.
Those brands appear on multiple delivery apps and have their own logos, but outside of the branding there is nothing to distinguish them from Red Robin. They offer virtually the same menus and have the same addresses as any other Red Robin.
But at first glance, a customer would be unlikely to recognize that the brands are just offshoots of the national chain.
A Red Robin spokesperson asked for written questions but then didn’t respond to those inquiries. Marc Burrow, a New York-based art director who said he designed The Wing Dept. logo, didn’t respond to a request for comment but removed a webpage discussing his ghost kitchen concept for Red Robin a day after an email inquiry.
“There are questions about truth in advertising,” said Kurt Huffman, the owner of ChefStable, one of Portland’s most prominent restaurant groups. “Are you just selling us Red Robin, but with four different labels on it? To me, that is what they’re doing. There’s nothing substantively different about the different brands they are selling. There’s no personality to it, there’s nothing that differentiates it in any real way.”
ChefStable is among a handful of local businesses that have gotten into the ghost kitchen game over the last several months in an attempt to survive the pandemic and push back against what they see as sterile concepts and brands being offered by national ghost kitchen operators.
After catering business plummeted due to the pandemic, ChefStable Catering was left with little use for its 3,000-square-foot commercial kitchen. In December, the group transformed the kitchen into ChefStable Kitchen Collective, a virtual food hall where six different menus are prepared in the same space for delivery on the same ticket.
Unlike other ghost kitchen operators, the collective presents all six menus under the same banner on delivery apps such as Postmates, DoorDash and Grubhub, offering the concepts as different sections of a menu. All six menus were designed by local chefs who work together in the kitchen to cook the food for delivery.
Huffman sees the virtual kitchen as a place where those chefs can test run menus with the long-term goal of opening brick-and-mortar restaurants, if customers respond to the concepts.
However, he said he hopes the ghost kitchen model is not here to stay. For him, it’s a temporary measure that enables ChefStable to get through the pandemic.
“Personally, I hope it all crashes into a fiery abyss,” Huffman said. “I think it’s a race to the bottom in terms of the quality of the product if you are really looking at this as the future. If this takes hold, it will be fascinating to see how independent restaurant owners can differentiate themselves in a space that’s really built for conglomerates.”
Diane Lam has spent the last few months working on a concept to try to compete with the out-of-town corporations and national chains that have come to dominate the takeout scene with their ghost kitchens.
At the end of last year, Lam closed her Cambodian-influenced pop-up restaurant at North Mississippi Avenue’s Psychic Bar and opened Prey + Tell, a ghost kitchen focused on her popular pepper-lime chicken wings. Lam debuted the virtual restaurant briefly in January before taking a step back to build out the concept and focus on marketing and branding. Prey + Tell reopened Friday. She is hopeful that the quality of food she can provide will set her virtual restaurant apart.
But she said she is also wary of how quickly the ghost kitchen model is growing and evolving and how little consumers often now know about the meals they are ordering online. She said large corporations are taking advantage of the app ecosystem to flood the market with their various brand concepts.
“It disgusts me,” Lam said. “They are trying to saturate the algorithms so that way when you’re looking at these sites, you’re seeing five of the same product from one location in the same pool as one restaurant with one page.”
The ghost kitchen model itself doesn’t necessarily bother Chris Cha.
Cha’s Hawaiian restaurant Smokin’ Fire Fish was touted as one of the best new restaurants in Portland when it opened in 2019, but the restaurant struggled once the pandemic hit.
Cha was in the process of closing the restaurant for good and selling off his equipment when Jaime Soltero Jr., the owner of Tamale Boy, offered to rent him space in his restaurant’s North Russell Street kitchen.
By taking advantage of the shared kitchen model championed by ghost kitchen operators, Cha was able to limit overhead costs and get by with just one part-time staff member. The setup enabled him to survive while offering only takeout and delivery directly through his website. He credits Soltero with saving his business, and the two restaurant owners are now thinking of partnering on a new venture in Beaverton.
Cha said he doesn’t fault any company or corporation for trying to do what it takes to stay afloat during the pandemic, even if that means embracing the ghost kitchen model. But he also said consumers have the right to know where their food is coming from.
“Those restaurants could be going out of business themselves, even if they are a corporate entity,” Cha said. “It would rub me the wrong way, though, if they are trying to pass themselves off as a local restaurant. It’s kind of sketchy if they are using this as an advertising tool to make it seem like they are something they’re not.”