The Rise of Ghost Kitchens: A Guide to Marketing Your Delivery-Only Restaurant
Updated: Jun 20
The food industry has undergone a massive shift in the last decade, with the rise of food delivery services like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and SkipTheDishes. This trend has created a bit of a dilemma for restaurants, with high commission fees and loss of in-house dining experiences.
The pandemic years further accelerated the need for food delivery services, leading to the rise of "ghost kitchens" or "dark kitchens," which operate exclusively for online food delivery orders.
Ghost kitchens have a delivery-optimized kitchen designed to cut costs, and overhead is low, making it an attractive option for many businesses. In this blog post, we will discuss tips for marketing your ghost kitchen, including researching your audience, getting into the delivery app queue, designing an efficient menu, creating your brand, capturing quality images of your menu items, managing reviews and ratings, and working your social media presence.
From Brick and Mortar to Ghost Kitchen: Delivering Deliciousness
To understand the rise of "ghost kitchens," you must first understand the rise of food delivery apps. Food delivery services like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Skip first started shaking up the market in Saskatoon, SK, with SkipTheDishes in 2012. DoorDash followed suit in 2013, and Uber Eats in 2014.
These food delivery giants took the world by storm, creating a conundrum for restaurateurs who were forced to weigh the options of playing the game, or not. Like all innovations, bonafide growing pains are a guarantee. Delivery apps charge restaurants a commission fee that ranges from 15% to 35% of the total order value, which can be a huge expense for small businesses.
You also have to take into account that brick-and-mortar establishments sell much more than food and drink; they create experiences and connections. Most small establishments aren't designed to handle both in-house and curb side pick-up traffic; even the most exceptional service can't make up for the loss of connection that happens when a rush of delivery drivers crowd dine-in tables
Having worked with many different businesses in the hospitality realm both on the front lines and through marketing over the last couple of decades or so, I can say with utmost confidence that people who work in the food and beverage industry are some of the most adaptable, hardworking, and opportunistic thinkers in your community. They have grit and determination and will always find a way to create an opportunity out of a challenge. It is this tenacity, combined with the routine crushing restrictions of the pandemic that seemingly changed our habits overnight, that has supersized the rise of the "ghost kitchen."
But wait, what is a “ghost kitchen"? A ghost kitchen (also known as a virtual kitchen, dark kitchen, or cloud kitchen) is a kitchen that operates exclusively for online food delivery orders. Unlike traditional restaurants, ghost kitchens do not have a visible location or a physical dining space for customers to sit and eat; instead, they focus solely on preparing food for delivery through the third-party food delivery apps that we were discussing earlier. With a ghost kitchen, you're not only cooking with fire, you're cooking with a delivery-optimized kitchen designed to cut costs! Overhead is low, and efficiency is high.
How to Market Your Ghost Kitchen
So, how do you market your ghost kitchen? Here are some tips:
Research Your Audience
Researching your audience is crucial for a dark kitchen because it helps you understand who your potential customers are and what they want. This information can guide decisions about the type of food to offer, the pricing strategy, the marketing message, and the platform to use for promoting your business.
Get Into the Delivery App Queue
There are a number of options to get involved with but not all delivery apps are taking new clients. You can start the application process on as many or as few delivery apps as you think you can handle. Sometimes the process can take some time, and not all services are taking new restaurants. You can also look into partnering with local delivery services in your city (like Simply Delivery in Lethbridge, AB) to build some solidarity in the industry!
The menu is the heart of any restaurant, and this is especially true for a ghost kitchen or dark kitchen. You may be inclined to include any or all of the delicious offerings that you have available for delivery! Well, hold your horses. When it comes to ghost kitchens, you’re working for efficiency, and with that comes a simplified menu with items that travel well and are packaged nicely for any online ordering platform. You should also take into account that delivery drivers have very different priorities than you and sometimes (even though it’s discouraged) run multiple apps to service multiple clients at the same time, so they are delivering more than just your order. You cannot control your means of transportation, but you can control the quality of your food, how it is packaged, and how well it travels.
Create Your Brand
Most of the larger delivery apps like Skip and DoorDash will require a higher-quality logo and brand to get started. You will want to ensure that you have a professionally designed logomark created with best practices for use on different delivery app platforms and online software. Creating a brand guide to document your brands fonts, colours, and best practices for use will ensure that your brand is used consistently through all media and platforms.
Capture Quality Images of Your Menu Items
High-quality food photography is essential for attracting customers to your ghost kitchen or dark kitchen. You can hire a professional photographer, or invest in a bit of photography equipment and learn how to take great food photos.
Reviews and Ratings
Positive reviews and ratings can make a significant impact on your ghost kitchen or dark kitchen's success. This is especially true with delivery app services where a lower rating will affect your visibility. Encourage your favourite customers to leave reviews, and respond promptly to any negative feedback you receive. It is also important to note that these platforms rely on ratings and reviews from both customers and drivers to maintain the quality of their service and to help users make informed decisions about where to order food from. I know this factor might seem completely out of your control but there is a hack that can give you some authority over this outcome. Some delivery apps such as SkipTheDishes allow restaurants to set a time frame within which they can “accept” or “decline” an order. This time frame is known as the "acceptance window," and it can be customized by each restaurant according to their preference. Restaurants can choose to “accept” or “decline” an order if they need more time to prepare their kitchen or manage their resources.
Work Your Social Media Presence
Take control of your online presence, but don't spread yourself too thin. Instead, focus on the platform(s) that will make the most impact for your business. Here are some of the biggest social media platforms to chew on:
Show off your mouth-watering food and entice customers with captivating visuals. By posting product photos, behind-the-scenes shots, and playful videos, you can create a stronger connection with your audience. Adding a location to an Instagram photo or video can be useful for letting your followers know where you are, without stating it in the caption. It also helps your engagement rate and it will give you more exposure and attract customers with minimal effort. Remember to engage with your customers directly in the comments and keep your content dynamic with customer shares, news, and special features in your stories.
With almost 2.9 billion monthly active users at the time of writing, Facebook is a goldmine for promotion and special offers. Make it easy for customers to order your food or download content by adding call-to-action buttons. Learn how to schedule posts on Facebook to save time and build a consistent posting schedule that engages your audience.
TikTok is one of the fastest-growing social media platforms with almost 1 billion users. It's perfect for reaching a younger audience. You can create videos showcasing new dishes or even add a comedic element that fits your brand. This platform has also introduced location services similar to Instagram, and more and more restaurants are discovering the potential of TikTok, so don't miss out!
Wait, You Forgot About a Website?!
No, I really didn't. If you are newly established, or just thinking about starting a ghost kitchen, a website is not the most important first step in launching a ghost kitchen. Here's why:
Most customers order through delivery apps: These apps provide a convenient and easy-to-use platform for customers to order food from various restaurants and ghost kitchens, which can make a website less essential.
Social media can be more effective: Ghost kitchens can leverage social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter to showcase their menu items, promotions, and brand personality. These platforms can help ghost kitchens reach a wider audience and build a community of loyal customers, often at a lower cost than building and maintaining a website.
Cost and time considerations: Building and maintaining a website can be expensive and time-consuming, especially for small ghost kitchens that may not have the resources or expertise to manage a website effectively. By prioritizing other marketing channels, ghost kitchens can focus on building their business and serving customers rather than managing a website.
Let’s dish on some final thoughts. The food delivery app industry has revolutionized the food industry by creating opportunities for businesses to expand their reach beyond their physical locations. Ghost kitchens have emerged as a way for businesses to capitalize on the food delivery trend while minimizing overhead costs.
With research, a good delivery app strategy, menu design, branding, high-quality food photography, and positive customer reviews, ghost kitchens can compete successfully in the food delivery market.
The restaurant industry is constantly changing, and those who are adaptable and innovative will continue to thrive in the future. The food industry has shown us that when life hands you fast moving lemons, you make fast moving lemonade, or lemon sorbet (just not for delivery).