When you’re craving some lunchtime chicken wings but you’re swamped at your desk with work, the easiest thing to do might be to open your favorite food delivery app. On DoorDash, you have the choice of a few well-known national wing brands, as well as Sticky Wings, Rebel Wings, and Wings & Things. But what may not be immediately clear is that there hasn’t been a sudden influx of new chicken restaurants in your neighborhood. Actually, all of these wings come from the same Seattle ghost kitchens, located in two trailers hidden in back of a strip mall, parked down the hill behind a wireless store and a mattress outlet.
The wing shops are run by a business called Reef Kitchens. It’s one of a growing number of companies that are operating Seattle ghost kitchens (also called virtual kitchens or dark kitchens). These are usually delivery-only “restaurants” that are sometimes attached to a brick-and-mortar eatery, but can also be brands that barely exist at all.
Another Reef trailer is located behind a barbed-wire fence in an RV storage lot in an industrial area of Magnolia. That’s where food is prepared for one outpost of the Instagram-friendly brand Man vs Fries. From there, you can order burritos with fries that are served on a “hella big” flour tortilla and topped with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Man vs Fries started as a Bay Area popup in 2018 and partnered with Reef to expand to cities across North America. There are now over 70 locations, including four in Seattle, and the brand has over 27,000 followers on Instagram.
Diane Lam, a restaurant owner in Portland, described Man vs Fries as “sterile” after she tried it out in the name of market research. “On the website, it looks so good,” Lam told Eater Portland, “but when it comes to your door, it doesn’t feel like anyone is cooking it.”
I haven’t had the chance to try the Man vs Fries concept myself, but I’d be surprised if it lived up to the hype. Personally, I’d rather order my takeout from local businesses like Marination, Frelard Tamales, and others, who have a track record of supporting the community and preparing fresh, flavorful food.
Ghost kitchens are projected to become a $1 trillion market over the next decade, and the NPD group, which tracks restaurant sales, says that delivery now makes up 11% of restaurant sales, up 86% since the beginning of the pandemic. Capitalizing on the trend, or perhaps driving it, big companies like Chili’s and Applebee’s have started creating their own ghost brands. Meanwhile, celebrities like Mario Lopez, YouTube star MrBeast, and Guy Fieri have begun to roll out virtual restaurants in dozens of cities nationwide, through delivery apps like Doordash, Uber Eats, Postmates, and Grubhub.
In Seattle and other cities, Fieri made headlines when his Flavortown Kitchen opened a few weeks ago, offering diners his signature fried cheesesteak egg rolls and burgers covered with Donkey sauce. But the concept actually operates out of the South Lake Union location of the Italian chain Buca di Beppo. The kitchen there also prepares orders for MrBeast Burger, Wing Squad, and Mariah’s Cookies (a virtual brand named after Mariah Carey, who’s not baking the treats herself). All of these brands are under the umbrella of a company called Virtual Dining Concepts. At Buca di Beppo, Fieri himself seems like a ghost. If you choose to eat in their dining room, you can’t order anything off his menu, and there’s no signage outside that delineates the entrance to Flavortown.
The emergence of a ghost kitchen with ties to a celebrity chef seems likely to cannibalize sales from local brick-and-mortar establishments that are struggling during the pandemic. But some restaurants are fighting back by creating their own virtual brands. Green Lake’s Cocina Oaxaca is about to launch three new delivery-only brands that are run through a company called Future Foods: Daydream Breakfast Burritos, Smashmouth Burgers, and Cantina Latina. “It’s a cool way to make a little more money without modifying our menu at all or compromising anything,” Isabel Dominguez, manager of Cocina Oaxaca, told me. The Mexican restaurant already has almost all of the ingredients it needs to make burgers as well as breakfast burritos, so Dominguez says it’s a low-risk, no-obligation way to expand their business through delivery that she hopes will help the restaurant stay in business and not have to lay off any staff.
Hungry customers browsing online may not realize that these brands are connected to an existing restaurant. (Uber Eats says it now has over 10,000 delivery-only restaurants on its platform.) And in some cases, the offerings can be misleading. If you order from another location of “Smashmouth Burgers,” you might get a completely different product, because those burgers are made in the kitchen of Lunchbox Laboratory, a restaurant with locations in South Lake Union and Bellevue. Meanwhile, “Next Level Clucker” isn’t actually a chicken restaurant, just an offshoot of the vegan Next Level Burger in Roosevelt. And if you shop for vegetarian food through the “Viva la Veggie” brand, you’ll actually be getting your food from Pecado Bueno, a Mexican restaurant with locations in Fremont and Eastlake that also operates as “The Torta Shop.”
While DoorDash sometimes labels its ghost brands as virtual restaurants, the lack of transparency on most platforms might lead you to believe you’re getting something very different than what you ordered. Search for Chinese buns on Uber Eats and you might select Mount&Bao, a Lake City restaurant specializing in noodles or dumplings. Or you might choose Wow Bao, a national chain I first encountered in Chicago that’s partnered with Reef to bring the brand to its “neighborhood kitchens.” When you order from Wow Bao, your frozen potstickers or buns will be steamed in the same trailer where you’d get your frozen chicken wings.
We’re still in the early days of Seattle ghost kitchens. But big players are entering the market, like Uber founder Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and has been buying properties around the country, including in Seattle. While it’s unclear whether virtual kitchens will ultimately be a boon to the local economy, restaurants that exist only as ghost brands – whose marketing and food quality may be just a mirage – could be a scary prospect for Seattle diners.
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