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Ghost Kitchens Popping Up in Columbus

Taijuan Moorman Taijuan Moorman Ghost Kitchens Popping Up in ColumbusDelivery-Only Restaurant ClusterTruck opened Downtown in 2017. Photo by Walker Evans.
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A trend in the last five years in major food markets like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago has started to appear in Central Ohio, with the first local spots getting started before the coronavirus pandemic, while others turned to the concept as a result of the struggles the industry has faced as of late.

Ghost or cloud kitchens, like the name would suggest, have restaurant operators renting space creating a “ghost” or virtual brand that serves delivery-only meals, rather than maintaining a storefront.

Locally, ClusterTruck, which first opened in Columbus in 2017 and is expanding in partnership with Kroger, Matt and Tony’s, Mario Fazio’s, Fazoli’s, Nancy’s Home Cooking and more have launched ghost kitchen locations.

“They can be a good source of alternative revenue for restaurants these days. Of course, ghost kitchens are no substitute for the full dine-in experience,” said John Kelly, CEO of marketing company Zenreach. The company works with restaurateurs and industry leaders, and he says while the benefits — such as the reduced costs of real estate, labor, and menu innovation — are plentiful, there are major drawbacks.

“As a consumer, I love the personal experience of engaging with personable waitstaff, eating a good meal with proper accouterments, and not having to do the dishes at the end,” he said.

Frank Fazio, operational manager of Mario Fazio’s Columbus, is a part of the third-generation to get in this 50-year-old family business. He says after ghost kitchen provider CloudKitchens approached them in December and management began doing their research on the trend, the restaurant jumped at the opportunity. They sought open in Columbus by May 2020.

Those plans were pre-pandemic, however, that didn’t stop them from opening.

“Our brand is strong in Cleveland and our ultimate goal is to build these Mario Fazio’s all over the country with CloudKitchens,” he said. “Personally, I am very grateful that Columbus is the first place we get the opportunity to start this new venture.”

John Barker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association, says many restaurateurs are currently struggling, in some cases preserving cash to survive the pandemic. The effect on business in Downtown Columbus, especially, is concerning. Implementing a ghost kitchen model for businesses that have the capital could keep them afloat.

“It’s a viable strategy and particularly smart now when so many consumers are ordering food for pick-up and delivery,” he said. “It is an opportunity, just like food trucks, meals to go, and other ideas.”

Barker does, however, acknowledge the less desirable effect ghost kitchens can have on the industry — a loss of jobs for managers and little to no need for hosts, servers and bus staff.

“The longer-term impact could be a permanent shift from dine-in to more pickup, takeout, and delivery. This could result in industry sales growth, but fewer jobs,” he said. “This could also impact real estate all over the state and downtowns, which have thrived with dynamic restaurants, bars, pubs, and other gathering places.”

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