The Ghost Kitchens of OKC
Burrito Baby wasn’t the first ghost kitchen in OKC, but it was the first to arrive with notable fanfare. That’s to be expected when 84 Hospitality’s founder Rachel Cope basically says on social media, “Hey, we’re doing burritos. Delivery only.” The menu is small, with a stable of everyday burritos, like bulgogi and one with Takis and carnitas. There’s a weekly special, too, so far based on other 84 concepts, like a ramen burrito (Goro), a loaded tots burrito (Revolucion) and a burger burrito (Burger Punk).
Yes, the menu is eclectic, and fun, and that’s the point. Running a ghost kitchen not only works as an additional revenue stream for existing restaurants; it also works as a test kitchen.
Eater – the online journal of all things food – reported on ghost kitchens in November 2020, and they noted that a market research firm, Euromonitor, estimates the ghost kitchen (or delivery only) sector of dining may be worth $1 trillion by 2030. Theirs is the most generous of predictions, but anyone whose job it is to monitor these things knows that this is a trend with mostly upside – for restaurants, delivery services and customers – and when everybody is happy, the trend has traction.
Avery Cannon, owner of Cafe Contemporary and Wheeze the Juice, started Curry Boi out of the cafe kitchen at the end of February. He’s direct about the purpose of his ghost kitchen. “We’re looking at possibly doing a brick and mortar down the road, and this is a good way to test the products,” he said.
The products in this case are focused on and around three curries: yellow, green, and red with increasing levels of heat. “We do a blend of fresh vegetables with each that’s designed around that specific curry,” Cannon said. In addition to the curry and rice, a “chili crisp” is served with each. Created by Chef Shawn Perkins, the crisp – think of the chili sauce on the table at a pho restaurant – is a blend of red chilies, fried garlic and Szechuan peppercorns, so the customer doesn’t just get heat; they get mouthfeel or texture, too, from the peppercorns.
Like Cope, Cannon is working with one delivery service. Third party delivery services are structured so that exclusivity generates a better rate on the fee taken for each transaction. It forces customers to choose between apps, but the narrow margins on which restaurants operate – a single-digit percentage typically – means that every percentage point counts.
COVID forced restaurants to improvise in dramatic ways, and some of those changes, like curbside and alcohol sales, are sticking around; however, ghost kitchens – already a smart trend before COVID – make even more sense in a pandemic and post-pandemic world. Dining habits changed in 2020; we still don’t know how. Delivery app companies saw a $3 billion dollar increase in revenue in the second and third quarters of 2020, but how much that stays consistent after the pandemic is anyone’s guess. Still, delivery is not going away. If restaurants can add revenue streams while minimizing overhead costs, it’s a smart move for an industry that’s emerging from the pandemic with a noticeable limp.