While restaurants that rely on dine-in business are barely making it through this year, a new restaurant model has surged in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic: the ghost kitchen. Ghost kitchens are essentially just industrial kitchen spaces that only offer delivery and pick-up, doing away with dine-in service entirely, in favor of virtual restaurants that live online. Mexican fast-casual chain Chipotle is the latest major restaurant to show interest in the ghost kitchen model, announcing Wednesday its “first-ever Chipotle digital-only restaurant,” dubbed the Chipotle Digital Kitchen.
The chain is test-driving the prototype for the new virtual restaurant in Highland Falls, NY, “just outside of the gates to the military academy [West Point].” If the image of a digital kitchen housed at the gates of a military academy sounds depressing to you then, well… yeah. But Chipotle claims this new model, if successful, will enable the restaurant to “enter more urban areas that wouldn’t support a full-size restaurant and allows for flexibility with future locations.” In the short term, it’s possible this kind of virtual restaurant might make restaurants safer places to work, mitigating the risk created by customers dining in close proximity to staff. In the long term, once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, it’s unclear what kind of effect an uptick in the number of these virtual kitchens will have on the jobs of front-of-house restaurant workers.
Chipotle isn’t the only restaurant chain testing out this virtual format. “McDonald’s opened a ghost kitchen restaurant last year in London, and Chick-fil-A and Qdoba, one of Chipotle’s competitors, have also been experimenting with the model, which allows for higher profits and lower labor costs,” reports the Washington Post. And for anyone devastated that this shift in strategy may mark the beginning of the end for sit-down Chipotle locations, the press release promises “a lobby that is designed to include all of the sounds, smells and kitchen views of a traditional Chipotle restaurant.”
Personally, I’m not too upset about the disappearance of sit-down Chipotle or McDonald’s locations. But if this move by Chipotle, a company that has fared extremely well throughout the pandemic is an indicator of a larger evolution within the restaurant industry, it’s easy enough to imagine smaller restaurants — the ones we really want to sit and eat in — could follow suit. And who could blame them, when a third record-breaking spike in COVID-19 cases is ravaging the country, and the fate of restaurants is more uncertain than ever.