With an array of options available for pickup or delivery at the touch of a button, consumers have become increasingly critical of delivery product taste, temperature, consistency and quality."

This time last year, restaurant operators rushed to adapt to new and elevated health concerns by limiting employee interaction, focusing on off-premises consumption and  investing in all things contactless and digital in the foodservice space. Many also embraced the relatively new concept of virtual or “ghost” kitchens, those fully equipped, shared-space locations offering pickup and delivery restaurant services.

Born in NYC in 2015 as a way for operators to keep up with increasing online orders while maintaining service levels for dine-in guests (and to reduce overhead costs and risk for budding concepts), ghost kitchens took off last year. They quickly became a critical lifeline to operators who needed more efficient food delivery services or, worse, had no delivery options.

Now, college and university foodservice operators are embracing ghost kitchens. After a turbulent year of closures, worsening student mental health and declining academic performance, most U.S. colleges are preparing, with cautious optimism, for a more “normal,” in-person fall semester. While that would be a positive step toward recovery for the education sector, foodservice operators will continue to face headwinds from lower enrollments and a greater percentage of meals eaten off campus by a larger number of non-dorm-dwelling students and on-campus students who are now accustomed to closed dining halls. To help the segment adapt and recover, contract management companies are helping colleges and universities implement ghost kitchens on campus.

Chartwells Higher Education, owned by Compass Group, a foodservice and support services company, planned to respond to increasing student demand for on-campus delivery options before COVID-19 hit. Last year, the company worked with pilot schools across the country to fast-track its ghost kitchen program to create cost efficiencies and flexibility for campus dining halls facing the same pressures as their restaurant industry peers.

The company also developed app technology to streamline ordering. Need to grab something quick between classes? A student places a custom order on the Chartwells app that accounts for taste preferences, allergies, etc., then selects a pickup location. Or, with the proliferation of third-party delivery options, the order may be dropped off anywhere, even in front of a building before class.

“A benefit to the program is that many of our campuses are already well equipped to implement ghost kitchens at a low cost,” according to Chartwells Higher Education CEO Lisa McEuen. “They don’t have to replace any meal concepts or shut down a location; all they need is kitchen space to have a ghost kitchen up and running very quickly.” Coupling a school’s existing infrastructure with Chartwells technology, a school can implement a ghost kitchen with minimal financial or labor investment. After successful tests at five universities across the U.S. in 2020, Chartwells intends to push for more ghost kitchens on more campuses.

When implementing ghost kitchens, there are a few things operators and kitchen managers should consider to be successful. Products served out of ghost kitchens need to travel well. With an array of options available for pickup or delivery at the touch of a button, consumers have become increasingly critical of delivery product taste, temperature, consistency and quality. From new bouncy bun ingredients to sushi sleeves, consumers are expecting more from their off-premises meals, so offering innovations that make maki taste as good on the couch as it does on-premises will help keep consumers coming back (virtually and with limited contact).

Additionally, grab-and-go and portion-control items continue to be popular in a variety of segments. Many made-to-order programs and self-serve stations, such as fountain beverages, are lagging in recovery relative to prepared and bottled options due to lingering health concerns around high-touch areas. Grab-and-go products that compliment ghost kitchen offerings as order add-ons offer low-interaction, fast and easy opportunities to grow sales.

Ghost kitchens have been a boon to the restaurant industry and hungry consumers everywhere during a difficult year for the industry. We’re seeing the concept emerge in other foodservice segments in America, with colleges and universities potentially leading the way to keep their young customers happy and fed on and off campus.

Tim Quesnell
Director of Market Research

Tim Quesnell, Ph.D. leads the Food IQ client services analytics team for Waypoint, an Advantage Solutions agency, where he helps optimize clients’ existing data and leverage industry trends to drive sales targets and results. He previously served as manager, strategic research for Halverson Group, an Advantage Marketing Partners agency.

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