This article was originally published in The Dish: A Workers Rag, the newsletter of DSA’s Restaurant Organizing Project.
By Henry De Groot
With the increase in food delivery during the pandemic, the idea of virtual restaurants is probably familiar to most people in the food service industry by now. A virtual restaurant operates out of an existing brick-and-mortar location, but the restaurant creates food for additional online-only, delivery-only brands which sell food through platforms like Grubhub, UberEats, and Doordash. At this point, whether they realized it or not, most Americans ordering delivery have probably ordered from at least one virtual restaurant.
Ghost kitchens, on the other hand, are delivery-only kitchen facilities, have no connection to physical, dine-in spaces , and may run one or several online brands. Companies like CloudKitchens, started by Uber founder Travis Kalanick, are converting warehouses in out-of-the-way urban locations into multi-kitchen facilities. Prospective virtual restaurateurs can rent out a kitchen in these facilities, and quickly set up a delivery-only restaurant; in Boston, for example, a basic kitchen at CloudKitchen’s soon-to-open facility in Roxbury rents for around $5,000 a month.
The rise of app-based food delivery has already seriously threatened the restaurant industry, and ghost kitchens are poised to make the problem worse. With far lower rent than restaurants in high foot-traffic areas, virtual restaurants operating out of ghost kitchens will be able to undercut traditional restaurants in the delivery market. These ghost kitchens will not only attract would-be traditional diners, but will also eat into delivery orders that restaurants have increasingly built into their normal operating models, and come to rely heavily on during the pandemic as in-person revenues declined.
Restaurants, and the workers that rely on them, will be less and less able to compete with the lower costs and convenience of ghost kitchens. This could be exacerbated if delivery companies operate or partner with ghost kitchens to reduce delivery fees, further undercutting restaurants in the delivery market.
Some, like the author of this Grubstreet article, argue that ghost kitchens will never replace restaurants because they cannot compete with the in-person dining experience. But the litany of virtual restaurant failures from the past decade cited by the author do not mean it’s a doomed industry. Many concepts falter at first only to become ubiquitous later – just look at the failure of Webvan against the wide array of grocery delivery options available today. The logistical challenges, costs, and customer base for ghost kitchens’ products have obviously caught up with the times. And ghost kitchen facilities, focusing only on restaurant delivery and developed in strategic areas, will likely cut down on delivery time as they continue to expand.
Of course delivery will never fully replace the restaurant experience, but in the end, ghost kitchens do not need to completely replace dining out in order to do serious damage to the restaurant industry, and it’s workers. Taking even five or ten percent of market share will do serious damage to restaurants and force some to close. This could have a negative impact on workers and their organizing efforts , if more front of house workers compete for fewer jobs, or owners use the threat of going completely online to fend off campaigns for reforms or higher wages.
Ghost kitchens also make fully invisible a workforce that is already so often hidden from view behind the kitchen doors, and which has long been more vulnerable to exploitation as a low-wage, heavily immigrant workforce (which has been hard hit by the pandemic). These are often the same types of vulnerable workers already exploited by app-based delivery services as drivers, and presumably a boom in ghost kitchens would see a boom in this type of poorly protected work.
History tells that even the most disruptive industries and technologies have a progressive side, and as delivery apps and ghost kitchens expand and scale up, they bring larger and larger workforces together under a single employer – what Marx would call “socialization“- the work becomes a collective endeavor (still under private ownership), but presenting new opportunities for collective organizing. Even as ghost kitchens displace workers, their development can create new opportunities. The job of socialists and anyone organizing in this industry is not to lament the inevitable march of history, but to keep apace with development and prepare both to anticipate challenges to take advantage of new opportunities.
Unlike much of the app- or cloud-based economy, ghost kitchens operate out of one centralized location. Twenty kitchens in one warehouse means a lot of cooks in one building. This could lead to easier opportunities for worker organizing. Although the small size of the individual enterprises may pose an obstacle to full unionization, these workers will, if organized, have the potential to mount serious strikes. At the very least, these sites have the potential to be turned into strongholds of restaurant worker organizing, while overlapping with gig worker organizing in every city, and building power in the largely POC and immigrant workforces which tend to work back of house jobs.
Ghost kitchens also feed into Uber and Lyft’s business model of misclassification of workers, something organizers in the restaurant industry need to consider. Are food delivery drivers for Uber eats really more comparable to taxi drivers, like regular passenger-carrying Uber drivers – especially if they are often the same driver? Or are they in essence hospitality workers, replacing the front of house staff? The answer we come to as an industry will have profound implications for our organizing work.
Another opportunity for service industry workers could be to organize cooperative efforts which utilize CloudKitchens, cutting out the bosses entirely. Socialists and labor theorists have long argued that cooperatives on their own will never rid us of capitalism; nonetheless, they form one part of a holistic socialist strategy. Given the greater accessibility of opening a virtual restaurant out of a ghost kitchen – as compared to running a traditional restaurant – ghost kitchens may serve to facilitate the growth of worker-owned virtual restaurants. One cooperative in every CloudKitchen facility would be a big step towards organizing CloudKitchen workers, give workers an example of a less exploitative model, and could provide affordable, relatively ethical, and hopefully delicious food to socialists’ doorsteps.
Ghost kitchens, and the capitalists backing them, will revolutionize the food service industry whether we like it or not. Line cooks will become less visible. Front of house workers will be replaced by misclassified delivery drivers. Delivered meals will eat into restaurants’ revenue. We can sit back and lament the changes they bring to an already hurting industry, or we can embrace them as new opportunities. Workers and organizers should be on the lookout for how to include ghost kitchens in local organizing efforts, consider them as potential sites for worker co-operatives, and to build solidarity between restaurant workers and app-based delivery workers. Class-conscious restaurant workers must lead the fight to determine whether this technological disruption benefits the capitalists like Kalahnik, or the workers themselves.
Henry De Groot is a co-chair of the Boston DSA Labor Working Group and an editor of Working Mass.
Photo credit: https://www.pexels.com/@creative-vix