15 steps for launching a profitable ghost kitchen & online restaurant

Ghost kitchens—the next stage of restaurant evolution—are changing the foodservice industry landscape.

But how do you successfully launch a ghost kitchen?

While there’s never any guarantee of success in the foodservice industry, taking the right steps can increase your odds.

Here are the top 15.

Step 1: Decide what type of ghost kitchen you want to operate

As with traditional restaurants, ghost kitchens operate in several different ways. So, before you do anything, decide on the type of ghost kitchen you plan on opening.

Here are three popular types of ghost kitchens:

  1. Entrepreneur ghost kitchens: The most popular type of ghost kitchen operates out of unused space in a commercial kitchen (often located in hotels, shopping malls, mobile kitchens, event centers, or other restaurants). Ghost kitchen cooks receive orders, prepare food, and send it out the door with delivery drivers (who are typically employed by a third-party app).
  2. Kitchen pods/Pod kitchens: These ghost kitchens operate out of small shipping containers that have been retrofitted with kitchens. While convenient options due to their small footprints, pod kitchens come with limitations. Zoning laws and safety standards can limit kitchen pods or make them harder to operate.
  3. Incubator ghost restaurants: These ghost kitchens have direct affiliations with an existing restaurant. Also known as “pop-up kitchens,” these ghost kitchens focus only on fulfilling delivery and online orders. They usually operate to fulfill a growing demand for new types of food in a community. An existing pizza burger restaurant, for instance, might start a wings-only ghost kitchen to fulfill the demand for chicken within their community.

The type of ghost kitchen you choose will depend on the type of food you’re selling, your customers’ behavior, what’s most convenient for them, and what’s most profitable and convenient for you.

Step 2: Create a compelling brand

Unlike traditional restaurants, ghost kitchens operate without the benefit of being able to create memorable on-location dining experiences for their customers.

So, to make a memorable impact on their patrons, ghost kitchens need to create stunning, eye-catching, and unforgettable brands. Your ghost kitchen’s brand should be so vibrant and extraordinary that your customer thinks of it every time they consider ordering a meal online.

But designing a flashy logo isn’t enough. You must bring your brand to life by plastering it all over the packages, bags, and containers containing the food your kitchen sends out to customers. Put your logo, brand colors, and branding motifs everywhere so that it gets engrained into your customer’s memory.

Enveloping your delivery orders in your brand doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. There’s no need to order custom packaging or pre-printed bags, cups, and boxes.

You can easily brand generic delivery containers by printing off full-color, custom logos using the DateCodeGenie® automated labeling system. This device allows you to customize and print full-color labels for takeout, to-go, and delivery orders, in addition to food prep, retail, and tamper-evident labels.

However, if your ghost kitchen needs more than stickers and labels, consider working with a company like Dot It to help bring your brand to life in other ways.  

Step 3: Find an ideal location

When selecting the right location for your ghost kitchen, you have a ton of flexibility. But you still have a few factors to consider when optimizing that location.

Here are some factors you’ll want to keep in mind:

  1. Proximity to your target market: Even though you do not depend on foot traffic with a ghost kitchen, you want your ghost kitchen to be relatively close to your target market. It doesn’t have to be near the main drag, but it should be close enough to where your customers’ food will arrive quickly.
  2. Get your location at a discount: Areas with high foot traffic can charge a lot in rent. But your ghost kitchen doesn’t need any foot traffic. So, put it in an under-utilized location. Hotels, event spaces, strip malls, and even food trucks or other restaurants often have unused or under-used spaces they’re looking to rent out. Operating out of these places is the equivalent of getting a significant discount on your rent. And that’s going to increase your profit margins.
  3. Accessibility & parking space for delivery drivers: Although you don’t need to have your ghost kitchen accessible to pedestrians and customers, you need it to be accessible for delivery drivers that work for third-party apps. That’s why hotels, strip malls, and parking lots make incredibly convenient locations for ghost kitchens to set up shop. Try to find locations that allow drivers to get in and out quickly and safely—whether they’re driving a car, bike, moped, or scooter.
Step 4: Plan the layout of your kitchen

As we mentioned already, ghost kitchens thrive by maximizing efficiency, which includes the design and efficiency of their layout.

Here are a few things to consider when designing your layout.

  1. Pre-existing infrastructure: If your ghost kitchen operates out of an existing kitchen, you’re off to a good start. You might, however, need to fill in some gaps. Consider what you have to work with, make a list, and order additional equipment from there. If your ghost kitchen has a stove already, buying another might not make sense.  
  2. Make sure there’s room to breathe (and walk): As with any other kitchen, the width of your walkways matters greatly. After all, you want staff to move around your kitchen safely. So, make sure your staff has enough room to maneuver. You can make your ghost kitchen compact, but you must make it safe to move in. 
  3. Shrink the distance between things: Ghost kitchens operate with minimal staff, so staff can’t afford to waste time. To save staff time, set up your kitchen to reduce the number of steps your staff has to take between key areas and items in the kitchen. Put essential items well within reach (without cluttering your space). Being selective of what you put into the kitchen in the first place can help with that. If a tool performs multiple functions, put it in a central location, whether it’s a chef’s knife or an automated labeling system like the DateCodeGenie®.
Step 5: Get licensing, safety, and health regulations on lock

Even though they’re called “ghost kitchens,” the guests are very much alive. That means they need to be protected by normal health and safety standards.

Brining in a restaurant coach, a chef, or another restaurant owner as a consultant can help you ensure that your kitchen has everything it needs to be up to code from the moment it opens for business. Talking to an experienced expert offers one of the best ways to scale your knowledge quickly and efficiently.

However, your staff members need training too, which can be challenging to find time for.

Luckily, online training programs like Always Food Safe make it simple, easy, and affordable to train ghost kitchen staff.

As an ANSI accredited e-learning provider, Always Food Safe provides an interactive and enjoyable learning experience through a series of online videos. Because of their entertaining nature, these videos go the extra distance to keep learners engaged. This entertainment factor helps kitchen staff retain knowledge and pass certification tests more easily.

However, it pays to go a step further beyond talking to experts and training your staff. Consider adopting a more efficient food prep labeling system to make it even easier to meet health and safety standards.

Step 6: Adopt an efficient, affordable food labeling system

When it comes to successfully meeting health and safety standards, getting your staff trained isn’t enough. You need an effective food prep labeling system as well.

Luckily, you have several labeling options to help your staff meet safety standards and save significant time.

These options include:

  • DuraPeel food prep labels: DuraPeel food rotation labels make food prep labeling easier and quicker for staff. Besides helping your customers cut back on labeling errors, safety inspectors love these labels for how clearly they display item information.
  • Day of the week labels: By listing the day of the week an item was prepped on, DuraPeel food rotation labels speed up the food prep labeling process and help back-of-house teams organize inventory more efficiently. These food rotation labels remove easily before or after washing without leaving any residue.
  • Dynamic, print-on-demand labels: If you want to speed up the labeling process even more, try automating your labeling system with a solution like the DateCodeGenie. In a matter of seconds, back-of-house staff can print as many prep labels as needed—whether that’s one or one hundred. And prep labels are only the start. DateCodeGenie allows users to print labels for grab-and-go, delivery, curbside, retail items, and more.
Step 7: Optimize your menu for delivery

Since ghost kitchens operate to fulfill delivery orders, the food they serve needs to be optimized for delivery. That means that ghost kitchen food needs to make it to the customer while maintaining its freshness, flavor, and consistency as much as possible.

Using the right packaging—containers that absorb steam and moisture or allow it to dissipate while maintaining their structure—can certainly help with this. But getting fresh food to the customer starts with cooking food that holds up well to travel and delivery containers.

In this, ghost kitchens can learn from grocery stores. Since their products must travel long distances and sit on shelves for extended periods, grocery stores select foods with long shelf lives that withstand travel well.

Selecting for shelf-life might limit grocery stores in what they can offer customers, but it allows grocery stores to sell products that will make customers happy.

These are the lines that ghost kitchens have to think along as well. Successful ghost kitchens create menus that include items that hold up well to travel. Chefs design these items to maintain their integrity, texture, and flavor during delivery.

Operating with a limited menu can also help. Limited menus lower the cost and effort of maintaining a more extensive menu and inventory. Limited menus also save on training costs because they’re easier to learn how to cook.

Step 8: Figure out your marketing strategy

Creating a compelling brand for your ghost kitchen is step one when it comes to promoting your ghost kitchen. Developing a marketing strategy to share that plan is step two.

A basic marketing plan begins by asking several simple but essential questions. These questions include:

  • Who are we selling to?
  • What type of food are they looking for? What needs does it address? Is this food for someone who wants a quick breakfast, someone looking for something new, or both? Even restaurants have a problem they’re trying to solve when looking for food. Identify the need and how your menu can help meet that need.
  • What’s the best way to reach my customers? Are they typically on social media? If so, what platform? Are they on foot or taking public transit? Identify the best place to get in front of your customer and craft your marketing message to fit that platform.
  • Who can I bring in to help? Talking to a professional marketer can get your plan off to the right start and save you time and money in the long run when marketing your product. Consider talking to a marketing consultant or professional to help scale your marketing knowledge immediately. The sooner, the better.

Honestly, answering those questions provides the basis for a marketing plan. It can be that simple. There’s no need to overcomplicate things. There are plenty of other aspects of operating a ghost kitchen you can rely on to create complications.

Step 9: Scale up your online presence

Your digital brand can’t rely on a physical location or foot traffic to spark the interest of potential customers. It needs a digitally oriented marketing plan to get the word out.

Since ghost kitchens transact with customers through the internet, it provides one of the best places for ghost kitchens to market and advertise their food.

Classic digital marketing tools make a big difference when marketing your ghost kitchen. These tools include email, social, and—of course—a good old-fashioned web page.

And of course, ghost kitchens can benefit from paid online advertising through social media and search engine platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Google.

These platforms allow for very targeted, specific marketing—an option that does exceptionally well for businesses operating at a local level.

Step 10: Create a user-friendly website

Once you direct your target market to your website through marketing and advertising, you want to make the ordering process as smooth, simple, and easy as possible. So, design your website accordingly.

If visitors to your website encounter trouble ordering their food, it could discourage them from ordering again or completing their current order. You don’t want to go through all the trouble and expense of getting someone to yourself only to lose the sale.

So, when designing your website, keep this principle in mind—simple wins. You don’t necessarily make a website design by adding more features to it. The design becomes complete when you don’t have anything else you can remove from your website. Again, simple wins.

Give your customers the option to order directly from the page they land on. Your customers shouldn’t have to click more than twice to another page to place an order.

Again, this is where shorter menus come in handy. These menus make it easy for your customers to scroll and encourage them to place an order. Less is more, in this case.

And when your customers finally place their order, give them the option to pay multiple ways. You don’t want to make a credit card the only option. Offer Google and Apple pay options if you have the opportunity. These additional payment methods will make ordering (and re-ordering) even easier, which removes another barrier to your customers placing an order.  

Step 11: Choose a method of delivery that works best for you

Ghost kitchens can directly hire staff to deliver food, but many opt for partnering with a third-party platform.

Outsourcing food delivery to these platforms offers ghost kitchens several advantages, including:

  • An established customer base: Third-party delivery apps like Uber Eats, Grubhub, and Postmates already have established customer bases—users that regularly order through their apps. These companies have gone through the effort to streamline their ordering process, advertise to customers, and get people to use their apps. When you partner with one of these apps, you instantly increase your reach and exposure to new and existing customers.
  • Outsourced delivery staff & time savings: These companies handle the delivery for your kitchen, which means you have less staff to manage and pay for. Having the delivery portion of your operation outsourced gives you more time to focus on managing your line cooks, creating menus, and managing your brand.
  • Less liability when mistakes are made: Third-party delivery apps take some of the heat off your restaurant if an order gets lost or delivered to the wrong person. Once your employees hand off the meal to a delivery worker, it becomes the responsibility of the third-party app.

Although these apps charge high rates (anywhere from 20 to 40% of each sale), the benefits of partnering with one can still be worth it.

In the end, it’s your decision. Whether ghost kitchens partner with a third party or directly hire delivery staff, they can still be profitable when every aspect of the business works together.

Step 12: Think twice about food packaging

While it might seem like an afterthought, food packaging allows ghost kitchens to get their brand out into the world. When customized with color and a flashy logo, food packaging—even something as simple as a tamper-evident label—can serve ghost kitchens in multiple ways.

First, eye-catching labels get the attention of potential customers. Imagine an office worker sitting at their desk while eating food they ordered from you. A coworker walking by can’t help but notice the flashy tamper-evident label on the delivery bag and the delicious-looking meal, and they just have to ask, “Where did you get that from?”

To get your brand noticed, you need to use noticeable food packaging and labeling. Custom food labels can help with that. Click here for more information on how NCCO’s DateCodeGenie can help your ghost kitchen create full color, custom labels on demand.

Step 13: Get the right people on the line

Finding dependable, skilled line cooks can be challenging for restaurants even without a labor shortage. In the face of these circumstances, ghost kitchens will likely need to hire inexperienced workers.

So, how do you turn inexperienced workers into capable, efficient, and reliable employees for your ghost kitchen?

You start by getting them the training they need. But not everyone can afford to take time off work to go through necessary foodservice and food safety training. This is where flexible online training can make a big difference.

Always Food Safe provides one of the best options for quickly, efficiently training foodservice staff. As an ANSI accredited e-learning provider, Always Food Safe makes the learning process fun and engaging with its online videos.

Step 14: Maximize schedule efficiency

Having an efficient scheduling system helps ghost kitchens stay operational and profitable. And when it comes to finding the right system, there’s no need to dispense from what traditional restaurants use.

However, there are ways to improve upon these existing systems.

As with your labeling, menu creation, and POS systems, software designed to streamline the scheduling process can help immensely. These systems lessen the time it takes to create schedules and make it easier for staff to check their schedules.

Again, when creating a schedule, traditional rules still apply to ghost kitchens.

Step 15: Stock up on all the right supplies

While they operate much differently compared to traditional restaurants, ghost kitchens still require many of the same basic foodservice essentials to do business.

Food prep labels, tamper-evident labels, and register rolls all have their place in a ghost kitchen and play an essential role in keeping orders organized and food moving out the door.

But making sure your ghost kitchen constantly has the basics tools it needs can prove challenging in the face of supply chain issues. That’s why it’s best to choose products manufactured by a company with a history of success.

That’s where NCCO can help. Our company has been manufacturing and supplying foodservice essentials for over 115 years. And we’re proud to say we have a 99% fulfillment rate in an industry with an average of 96%.

Click here to view our full list of supplies that ghost kitchens need to thrive.

We’ll make sure you have the tools you need to succeed to not only launch your ghost kitchen but to keep it open as well.