Ghost Kitchens Float onto the Scene

At Kaiju Ramen, open for delivery or takeout, you can order bowls, appetizers and boba milkshakes. This Mothra Bowl is filled with healthy ingredients, including Brussels sprouts, marinated hard-boiled eggs, and corn. You also can include the protein of your choice.

Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Ghost kitchens (aka virtual kitchens, cloud kitchens or dark kitchens) are restaurants that exist without a brick-and-mortar storefront or dining room. Instead of dining in, patrons order online for delivery or pickup from a streamlined cooking space that’s often based inside another restaurant or at an affordable rental.

Ghost kitchens have been bubbling up in larger metro areas for the past decade, but they took off globally—and here in Des Moines—last year as food deliveries boomed. The trend is showing no signs of slowing. Global food delivery sales more than doubled in the past five years to $17 billion, and more than half of consumers now say they’re comfortable ordering from a delivery-only restaurant with no physical storefront. While the brands often sacrifice about 30% to third-party delivery app services, virtual kitchens involve less overhead costs for things like square footage, service and bar staff, and energy bills.

In Greater Des Moines, two local restaurant groups are leading the charge. Chef George Formaro and his Orchestrate Hospitality team teed things off with a trio of concepts, including Holy Stromboli, based out of Centro’s kitchen; Kaiju Ramen, located in Zombie Burger; and George’s Burger Joint, from the Django kitchen.

Dave and Jean Thompson of the Urban Restaurant Group (Urban Cellar & Market, Urban Grill, District 36) joined the trend soon after. They actually had been considering delivery kitchens for two years; their interest was piqued when they heard about a partnership between Uber Eats and restaurants in New York City.

“The need for safe delivery seems to be on everyone’s mind these days … so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to think outside the box and do some reinventing to increase sales,” Dave says, noting that their most successful concepts might evolve into their own dine-in restaurants.

As of press time, the Urban Restaurant Group’s virtual brands, run out of Urban Cellar, are Big Guy Gourmet Burgers, Tomatoes Fresh Pasta and Cocktail Medic.

Check digital ordering platforms like Toast and third-party delivery apps such as GrubHub and DoorDash for these and other “spirited” supper options.

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