The anti-ghost ghost kitchen
Hello to Hungry House, a new ghost concept that's not interested in industry precedent
When does a ghost kitchen launch feel more like a restaurant opening? When that ghost kitchen concept is run by an industry veteran armed with a checklist of things to change about the way ghost kitchens operate, bolstered by strong restaurant concepts, exceptional talent, and solid recipes.
Hungry House, a new takeout and delivery concept that launched in Brooklyn this week, is led by Kristen Barnett, the former chief operating officer of Zuul, an early New York City ghost kitchen company that was recently acquired by Kitchen United. Its first “season” features concepts from four chefs optimized for takeout and delivery, but also for the Brooklyn market the space serves. It’s notable for what it is as much as what it’s not. And it’s not your typical ghost kitchen.
Ghost kitchens felt like a brand new industry 18 months ago. Though the idea had been around for a while, plenty of restaurants large and small were just getting started thinking about how a digital brand might work for their company. Less than two year’s later, they’ve quickly morphed from an idea full of promise to an industry dominated by a handful of players, grinding out concepts that serve food that’s “safe” from brands that we know will scale or sell. (And, I’d argue, with little to no proof of actual success.)
It’s been nearly a year since MrBeast Burger rocked the restaurant industry. The concept sprung up overnight, bolstered by one of the most well-known YouTube celebrities of all time. And it’s hung on, now with more than 1,000 operating units. The company behind it has gone on to launch more celeb-backed brands, cashing in on famous people who carry a built-in and loyal fanbase.
But… how’s the food, really?
Answer: food is commoditized, success is measured in orders and customers, food quality and creativity take a backseat to menu items that will sell and scale. New “restaurants” are packaged up alongside a cheeky name and quirky logo, optimized for delivery on any number of platforms. And there’s money — a lot of money. Investments have been in the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, all betting on new tech-driven concepts taking over the industry.
Barnett thinks she has the antidote to all of that with a focus on strong brands and great food. Chefs — real chefs, not just celeb-influencers — are chosen for market fit, diversity, and creativity. Then Hungry House takes their concepts and recipes, investing in research, development, and testing to hone in on the final offering. The company’s staff of seven (and growing) handles food prep and service. Chefs behind the brands — the “creatives” in this model — are paid via a traditional licensing structure, collecting royalties on sales of their menu items. Diners order for delivery via Hungry House’s website, or — and this is interesting — in person on a digital kiosk. (“I see in-person being a way to acquire those customers without dumping money into digital ads,” Barnett said.)
Another intentional move: Hungry House is not listed on any third-party marketplace.
“Hungry House is another platform upon which people can build their brands. So there is value beyond just the actual financial outcome. Rather, it can be like a new way to tangibly connect with consumers,” Barnett said.
The idea of cooking food on behalf of restaurant brands in a shared kitchen for easy distribution isn’t groundbreaking — delivery giant DoorDash has been testing a similar model in northern California, developing recipes with an in-house culinary director. What feels different here is Hungry House’s heavy focus on its own consumer branding, chef and restaurant concept discovery, and, frankly, social media and the way new food businesses are run.
“They’re new chefs, they're good at design, there's a new way of thinking about their careers. Often they've been running Instagram pop ups, and some of those graphics are gorgeous. That's the realm in which we're playing, we’ve got to meet those brand specifications of what the cutting edge of culinary looks like,” Barnett said.
“These people are very thoughtful about their design choices, and about brand building, even if it is on a small scale,” she added. “And so to be able to partner with this type of culinary talent that I think Hungry House can and should be partnering with, when I think about true innovation for the industry, and quality, and all the things that I hope to build — my brand had to play with theirs and be right at the level that they would almost look for themselves, or even exceed that.”
Hungry House opened this week in the Brooklyn Navy Yard featuring partnerships with Woldy Kusina, The Food Sermon from Rawlston Williams, Apocalypse Burger from Martha Hoover and The Goods Mart.
It’s a drop, not a restaurant
Last week, if hype is to be believed, we saw, “the biggest restaurant launch in history.” That’s according to a press release touting a new virtual wing concept from DJ Khaled and Reef Technology. The concept is called Another Wing, and it’s apparently the parking lot trailer ghost kitchen “vessel” company’s largest brand to date, with “150 kitchens across three continents, in five countries, and 18 states at the same time.” (Never mind that 18 U.S. states is less than 50 percent of states!) In an interview with Bloomberg, Khaled told customers to also expect boatside jet ski delivery, a detail that recently made it onto Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update.
What else is happening?
Speaking of celeb drops, McDonald’s is partnering with Mariah Carey to launch the Mariah Menu, which features 12 days of free items with qualifying purchases through its app. Canadian favorite Tim Hortons is collaborating with Justin Bieber on menu items ("Timbiebs") and co-branded merch. And while Arby’s isn’t partnering with any celebs (that we know of yet?), it is releasing two limited edition potato-based spirits inspired by its fries: Curly Fry Vodka and Crinkle Fry Vodka — bloody mary anyone?
McDonalds inks new deals for white-label delivery with DoorDash and Uber Eats. In a move that shows exactly who big delivery works well for, McDonald’s announced a pair of delivery partnerships with DoorDash and Uber Eats using the services’ white-label platforms, DoorDash Drive and Uber Direct, to deliver orders placed via McDonald’s own app.
Uber killed its Eats Pass, replacing it with Uber One. The new loyalty play from Uber gives subscribers perks for $100 per year ($50 for a limited time!) or $10/month. Perks include guaranteed pricing on rides or delivery, and small discounts on eligible items. Members won’t pay a delivery fee for takeout and groceries, plus they’ll get $5 back on late deliveries.
Instacart aims to be more affordable. The grocery delivery platform is testing a new option where fees would be reduced or waived for orders placed more than 24 hours in advance. It also introduced a “Deals Tab,” that includes coupons from retailers as well as a “Deals Tab,” where users can browse offerings from more than 13,000 dollar stores. “Online grocery shouldn’t be a luxury, and we’re committed to making Instacart the most affordable way for families across North America to get the food they need from the retailers they love,” Asha Sharma, Instacart’s chief operating officer, said in a statement.
Toast adds some new features, including delivery support. In a nod to Toast’s continued plan to do it all, the company introduced a new feature that helps restaurants aggregate and manage orders from third-party delivery services. It’s the sort of tech offering that used to come from a standalone startup, but now is built right into a larger product.
Snackpass acquired Sleek, a company that lets you pay to skip the line. Thankfully Snackpass has no plans to immediately integrate the pay-to-cut-others feature; according to the company, it will instead adopt Sleek’s predictive wait time tech.
How many bowl-making robots do we need? At least one more, apparently. A company called Nommi, whose automated system can apparently make noodle, grain, and salad bowls in as little as three minutes, has announced a partnership with C3, the restaurant concept / ghost kitchen / real estate play from SBE hotels founder Sam Nazarian.
The partnership will apparently roll out the robot bowl concept to 1,000 locations, though not until… 2023, at least. It’s unclear exactly how far into development Nommi’s technology actually is; though per TechCrunch the company is looking to raise a $20 million *seed* round of funding. Oh, and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto consulted on the design and is also a stakeholder in the company.