Ghost Kitchens

Ghost kitchens begin to arrive in Canadian big-box stores

The hot restaurant concept of ghost kitchens are spreading like wildfire.

By Tom Nightingale

It’s well-established by this stage that ghost kitchens are the new hot concept born out of — or at least accelerated by — the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first ghost kitchen appeared in New York in 2013. It was already growing steadily but, as with so much industry-wide development, COVID-19 has proven to be the fuse for the explosion.

Now, they’re coming to big-box stores, too, blurring the lines even further between the traditional restaurant, grocery store, convenience mart, and all-in-one store.

Ontario-based company Ghost Kitchen Brands (GKB) has already been making waves in the industry. GKB owns and operates a network of virtual kitchen locations across Canada, each of which prepares, markets, and delivers a range of nationally branded products such as food, beverages, and packaged goods.

Now, it is teaming up with retail giants. GKB recently announced it is partnering with Walmart Canada for its first partnership with a big-box retailer.

The first Ghost Kitchen at Walmart opened in the St. Catharines Walmart in late February and another launched at the Woodstock Walmart on March 10. Additional locations are coming to Ontario and Quebec in the coming weeks, including the Toronto Walmart on Keele on March 25 and at Lachenaie and Saint-Constant in Quebec.

At the stores, customers can order freshly prepared meals in-store and online for contactless pickup or delivery. The key selling point is that they can mix and match a selection of well-known brands including the likes of Quiznos, Taco del Mar, The Cheesecake Factory Bakery, Amaya Indian Street Food, Red Bull, Nescafé, and Ben & Jerry’s. More brands are being added all the time, and all meals are prepared in one kitchen for one pickup or delivery.

While ghost kitchens have already proven to be both popular and profitable in the pandemic era, deals such as this one with big-box stores can provide the biggest platform yet for the concept.

Marc Choy, President of GKB, notes the company’s ultimate goal is to open a Ghost Kitchen within every 12-kilometre radius across Canada and to be able to “reach every Canadian, in every urban market, within 30 minutes, 24/7.”

That may sound like a lofty ambition, but recent industry developments seem to suggest we’re trending hard in the direct of multiple-stream digital foodservice.

After all, with indoor dining closed, then open, then closed again across Canada and beyond for much of the last 12 months, the industry has needed to almost entirely reinvent much of the way it operates.

Now, ghost kitchens have become something of a new normal. Customers are latching on to the idea of being able to satisfy a variety of meal cravings from one single location, whether physical or digital.

“We are like a restaurant, we just have 20 different brands we are serving,” says Choy. “And because we have so many brands, it’s become attractive to consumers because it’s become almost like a food court essentially. We can still do delivery but if you’re shopping (at a big-box store) and you don’t want delivery, you want food where you are. So we decided to bring all our brands to consumers wherever they are, and in this particular case, it’s inside Walmart.”

At the St. Catharines Walmart location, the set-up includes kiosks with ordering screens. The food arrives freshly made from the kitchen on-site. You can order from your phone while shopping and pick it up, or get it delivered later.

GKB is far from the only operation driving this change forward, of course, but its foray into big-box partnerships may signal the next step of a concept that is already being spun off.

Their adoption will be aggressive: 30 GKB locations are currently being built inside Walmarts in the U.S., scheduled to open in April, and another 10 will come to Canada by June.

It’s a trend that only looks likely to continue gathering steam in Canadian foodservice as the industry and its customers find ways to stay afloat and stay fed.

A plethora of food choices: coming soon to a big-box ghost kitchen near you.

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