Ghost kitchens: The evolution of food safety in nontraditional foodservice

– OPINION –

By Greg Staley

While we are (hopefully) through the worst of the pandemic, now the time has come to see what changes were temporary and what is going to stick around. It seems clear that off premise dining, already on the rise pre-covid, has only spiked in popularity in the last two years. That has come down some as diners feel safe to return to dining in, but the trend line is higher than before and will only continue to rise as guest consumption preferences change.

Ghost kitchens are helping fill some of that need, with consumers being more likely (at 79% of those surveyed by Deloitte) to order from one now than just a year ago (59%). Familiarity with the concept of ghost kitchens is growing and if brands want to ensure these remain good experiences, they need to put the same amount of effort into those brands as they do ones with FOH.

However, restaurants also need to take a look at what tools they can use to improve the experience at more traditional concepts. Walk-up windows are climbing in popularity because, when combined with online ordering, they turn into a frictionless experience. Drive thrus are expanding or being installed at concepts that would never have previously considered one. And many brands are remodeling to convert some FOH space into pickup areas for delivery and take out.

So, what does this mean for food safety? How can you give as much care and attention to off prem as dine in? It’s time to look at technology that gives you visibility across brands and ways to automate food safety tasks and alerts.

  • Invest in ghost kitchens and integrate them in your tech stack

Ghost kitchens right now are just a drop in the bucket at only $43 million of the restaurant industry, but that is expected to grow to more than $70 billion within five years. With that kind of potential, you need to know what’s going on.

Ensure the same food safety tech that serves other brands is in the ghost kitchen. Line checks are important, but they can be more effective when tied to clear reporting. For example, a bluetooth temperature probe can automatically import temperature data into a system that prompts employees at required intervals. Removing obstacles or cognitive load from employees ensures better compliance and safer food for guests.

All of this can then roll up into reporting at the corporate level, that can include data from other locations and brands under the same parent company. This allows you to look for locations that stand out for some reason and trends across brands. You may be able to see a cold holding unit that isn’t as low as it needs to be and could be serviced. Or perhaps several locations are doing a line check late because it hits during the rush, and you would be better off doing that check earlier before the rush hits.

With 45% of respondents in the Deloitte report saying they were unlikely to go back to a restaurant that has a food safety issue, it’s clear that if you want to keep public trust in ghost kitchens, you need to ensure they are getting the same level of effort and investment in food safety as other concepts.

  • Look for ways to tap into AI and automation

Restaurants are no stranger to using automation to make life easier. From timers to precise dispensers, we have been finding small improvements for decades. These innovations continue with robots and other technologies helping to advance food safety.

For certain concepts, robochefs work well, cooking food with accuracy and efficiency, and ensuring safe cooking temperatures are reached. This is particularly helpful as restaurants struggle with staffing, and mistakes are more easily made while short staffed. Other restaurants are using automated alerts tied to temperature probes in fridges and freezers to keep an eye out for equipment or power failures that could compromise safety.

Automated alerts can also improve guest safety as we move more toward “frictionless” purchases, where guests may not interact directly with an employee because they ordered takeout online or got delivery. Alerts about common allergens when placing an order, or to BOH employees when preparing an order that specifies a dairy allergy, for example, will go a long way to giving guests a safe dining experience.

As we dive deeper in the world of off prem dining, food safety must remain a priority. Guest preferences for how to dine may be shifting, but their trust in safe food doesn’t. It’s critical to invest in ways to keep food safe, whether in ghost kitchens or for a to-go order.

Greg Staley

About the author: Greg Staley is the CEO of SynergySuite, a back-of-house restaurant management platform. Greg focuses on facilitating better visibility and increased profitability for restaurant chains through the use of intelligent, integrated back-of-house technology. For more information, please contact Greg at [email protected]

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