IPO Corner: Ghost Kitchens And More

After the Great Recession in 2008, the subsequent boom saw a heap of drive-thru places install a second window to process more folks. According to the National Restaurant Association, the number of fast-food restaurants with two windows went up by 20% in the five years following the Great Recession. It feels like for a while now, things have been about being big. How big we can get, how much we can pack in, and how we can get even bigger.

But things don’t last forever… just as what goes up must come down, what gets big must get small again. Get ready for the rise of things like small-format restaurants, redesigned “super” stores that have a more hometown feel, and smaller shared kitchen spaces for multi-restaurant ordering. In just the last ten to fifteen years, we’ve rocketed forward so quickly (thanks to technology), that we’re having to rethink kitchen and restaurant spaces almost entirely.

Since the pandemic has come and gone, our dining habits have changed… we’ve changed, and so have the kinds of spaces we want to see being used to make food. A good example is the rise of the ghost kitchen, which is a restaurant that only prepares food for delivery or takeout. You may also hear them referred to as virtual restaurants, cloud kitchens, or dark kitchens. They’re on the rise and are expected to grow in popularity right alongside food delivery and online ordering demand.

Ghost kitchens have no dining room and don’t need a slew of staff, just a small team to cook and package the food. This means lower overhead, increased efficiency, and flexibility. This flexibility is part of what’s driving these kitchens to grow, they can be put anywhere… a shipping container, commercial kitchen, or even a warehouse. A business can save money because these kitchens don’t rely on foot traffic… just grab a little ghost kitchen almost anywhere to set up shop.

With more folks opting out of eating inside, and more demand for delivery, the concept of ordering from ghost kitchens is gaining steam. One provider of restaurant hub technology, called Kitchen United, is taking things to the next level with a “multi-restaurant, to-go” experience. This allows hungry patrons to order from multiple “restaurants” from the same kitchen, but only pay a single bill. They recently raised $100 million in Series C funding to help grow their vision.

Places already utilizing Kitchen United offerings include Panera Bread, Wingstop, Burger King, and Popeyes… and they aren’t the only ones working to keep up with the times. McDonald’s is rumored to be jumping on the bandwagon with the planned opening of a small-format concept called CosMc’s. If the name rings a bell, it should… in the 80s and 90s, an orange alien in sneakers came to earth to trade his headphones and skateboard for a Big Mac in McDonald’s commercials.

A small format restaurant takes a traditional restaurant and shrinks it down in some important way. This can be done with less seating, a smaller kitchen, or less inventory, and these compact, convenient, specialized experiences meet patrons where they are, which can be fantastic for specializing them to their specific location. They can be tailored to local tastes and needs, all while maintaining a brand’s core identity.

We’ll find out next year whether CosMc’s is a hit, but we don’t have to wait at all to know that the changes we’ve discussed signal much broader trends. More and more, folks want to take food off-premises, and restaurants are responding with automated drive-thru lines, special pickup areas, and order-ahead lanes. Customers want go-to, restaurants want to shrink costs… so the redesigns could turn out very well for both parties.

Others diving into the small format pool include El Pollo Loco, Schlotzsky’s, and KFC. Increasingly, this also includes ordering kiosks as part of new urban planning designs, which can be seen with Panera Bread in places like New York. These smaller stores, with more focus on preparing rather than socializing may be ideal in a more dangerous, sicker world. They provide less place to loiter, less stuff to steal, less stuff to smash, and are easier to clean. Come back next week, we’ll have more from the IPO space.