SPRINGFIELD, Ore. -- Pandemic challenges spurred innovation in Western Oregon's restaurants, which could explain a trend that you might notice next time you log onto a third-party delivery app like GrubHub or DoorDash.
Scrolling through GrubHub in the Eugene-Springfield area, you'll see some restaurants listed that don't fit in amongst the beloved community staples and local favorites. You can order food from places like The Wing Dynasty, Best Coast Wings, and Outlaw Burger, even though there are no such physical restaurants that you could visit.
You may find yourself ordering from Wow Bao, when in fact, the food comes from Sizzler. Coco's Famous Hamburgers is actually from Shari's Cafe and Pies. Donatos originates from Red Robin. The only indication that these brands are related to any other business is the address listed at the bottom of their GrubHub page.
The hospitality industry has different names for the concept, including virtual kitchens, ghost kitchens and virtual brands, and it's not just the chains that are doing it.
Hole in the Wall BBQ in Springfield cooks Miss Mazy's Amazin' Chicken, Monster Mac, Outlaw Burger and CraveBurger out of its kitchen. General Manager Gary Rodgers said that he was aware of the ghost kitchens prior to the pandemic, but the shutdown of dine-in service during the pandemic piqued his curiosity.
“We were struggling business-wise, so I was looking at ways to increase our revenue, and virtual kitchens kind of intrigued me,” he said.
That's when he was approached by a company called Nextbite. The company develops the recipes and marketing for virtual-only restaurant brands.
According to Rodgers, the brands he adopted were turnkey. His kitchen just had to learn to cook the recipes to Nextbite's specifications and fulfill orders from third-party delivery apps. Nextbite and Hole in the Wall BBQ then share the revenue.
Rodgers saw near-immediate success once the virtual brands were up and running.
“It exceeded my expectations. It’s actually exceeded Nextbite’s expectations," said Rodgers.
According to Oregon State University-Cascades executive-in-residence Todd Montgomery, ghost kitchens allow restaurants to utilize their kitchens to their fullest.
“You're somebody who has a facility, and you’re paying rent on that and maybe only using 25 percent of that. There’s opportunities there," he said.
Not only can the innovation help keep already-existing businesses afloat, but it can spur the creation of new local businesses that can avoid the high overhead cost of traditional restaurants.
“Whenever there’s a great disruption to the industry, there’s usually an opportunity that follows," said Montgomery. "And I think this is the opportunity that follows, that allows a lot more people, a lot more local businesses, a lot of people who don’t have that upfront capital, to get in the game."
A positive relationship with customers is essential for the success of a restaurant, and though they may not have a physical location, Montgomery said that it is still wise for ghost kitchens to take pride in the quality of their product.
“Ultimately it might be surprising for some consumers, but in the end, I think we win through more innovation,” he said.
That's why Rodgers treats his four virtual brands as his own.
“It’s not something like I’m trying to deceive the consumer. I’m trying to give them more options and generate revenue so we can stay in the community," he said.
He's not sure if he'll continue his ghost kitchen experiment long-term, but he does feel that the pandemic and rise of delivery has marked a shift in the future of the restaurant business.
“A lot of us have the opportunity now to rebuild our business and fix some of the things that were flawed," Rodgers said.