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I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost Kitchen
The pandemic accelerated lots of trends that were already in progress. Remote work. Day drinking. Better work-life balance. The ubiquity of delivery apps. And ghost kitchens.
A ghost kitchen is a virtual kitchen/digital storefront that produces food and drink for delivery and pickup from one location, often for multiple apps that market themselves for online and phone ordering.
For example, you could create a fried chicken sandwich or avocado toast concept (how unique!) and market it completely online, then prepare your orders in a central ghost kitchen that’s the base for pickup and delivery.
Interesting idea. It’s gained traction. But it’s not very hospitable.
According to the National Restaurant Association (that’s the NRA we’re talking about in today’s essay)’s 2023 State of the Restaurant Industry report, restaurant operators actually expect the number of ghost kitchens to either remain flat or decline.
Because while 55% of people in the NRA survey said food pickup and delivery are “essential” to their lifestyles, 70% say they prefer their food from a traditional physical location.
In other words, even though they might do takeaway, they want to know exactly where it’s coming from. They want to put a face with the name, so to speak.
It also makes sense from another standpoint. Not sure about you, but we enjoy dining out among other people. It’s a social experience. A ritual. And, according to the same NRA survey, the broad hospitality industry should officially come roaring back from the pandemic this year.
The NRA anticipates food-service industry sales to hit $997 billion this year, to some extent due to higher menu prices. It’s the vicious cycle of inflation. Prices get higher, but people continue to consume (because, as we said, they enjoy going out), so prices stay high.
But there’s also the demand end of the equation. Based on the restaurant operators the NRA surveyed, it could reach, if not surpass, pre-pandemic levels more than three years after we got into this mess.
If the predictions in the NRA report are accurate, the total food and beverage industry workforce will expand by 500,000 jobs by the end of this year, hitting 15.5 million, past pre-pandemic levels.
87% of restaurant operators say they’ll hire more workers in the next 6-12 months. Fast-casual establishments are at the high end at 91%. Coffee and snack joints are on the low end at 69%.
Much of this optimism is based on another consensus from the NRA survey: We won’t see a major recession in 2023.
Often, the best way to gauge the prospects of recession is from Main Street. From people with boots on the ground. Hospitality happens in cities, on main streets and in the trenches. The operators have a good sense of traffic, which can reflect consumption levels.
Here in Los Angeles, bars and restaurants appear as packed as ever. We hear likewise from our friends in San Francisco, New York, and other cities, including smaller ones such as Portland, Denver, and Buffalo.
It goes back to why ghost kitchens might fade and never be a core component of our eating experience. The social component of eating out matters even more in a post-pandemic world where most people seem to have finally forgotten about COVID.
The NRA has data to back this up: 84% of consumers say “going out to a restaurant with family and friends is a better use of their leisure time than cooking and cleaning up.” Impressive number, even as inflation has driven up the cost of dining out.
Of course, The Juice agrees. Hospitality will never die, no matter how many ghost kitchens, mobile ordering apps, and digital kiosks we see pop up around the world.
The Bottom Line: All of this isn’t necessarily a sign to pile into restaurant stocks, especially speculative ones with weak national and regional footprints.
One other datapoint from the NRA report: 47% of restaurateurs think competition will get more intense in 2023 than it was last year.
So think about the big, publicly traded names with focused brick-and-mortar operations, solid and growing digital/mobile strategies, and, often as a result of these two elements, strong consumer loyalty.
Think Starbucks (SBUX), McDonald’s (MCD), and Chipotle (CMG).
Source: Google Finance
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