Formed in 2010 as Stonegate Pub Company, Stonegate Group is the largest pub company in the UK. With constant acquisition fueling steady growth, the company portfolio now includes over 4,500 sites.
Amongst those 4,500 is The Rule. Also known as K-Town Chicken (Korean Fried Chicken). Or Chik Box (American Fried Chicken). Or Locked n’ Loaded (Loaded Fries and Chicken). Or Sin City Burgers. Or Mighty Burger. Or 88th Street Burger Bar. All located at 116 South Street.
The company’s portfolio also includes Bobbin at 500 King Street in Aberdeen. Sin City Burgers is located at 500 King Street as well. So are 88th Street Burger Bar and Mighty Burger. But not K-Town Chicken, Chik Box, or Locked n’ Loaded.
Those are all located at Cairncry Road, AB165UR along with Murdos, another Stonegate property.
In Glasgow, Stonegate’s portfolio includes Hall at 457 Sauchiehall Street. K-Town Chicken, Locked n’ Loaded, and Chik Box share that same location.
And at 128 Renfield Street in Glasgow, Stonegate property Walkabout shares its address with 88th Street Burger Bar, Sin City Burgers, and Mighty Burger, although none of those three are taking orders on Deliveroo as of this writing.
30-32 Bread Street in Edinburgh is home to Stonegate’s The Chanter as well as both Locked n’ Loaded and K-Town Chicken.
The Rule, Bobbin, Murdos, Hall, Walkabout, and The Chanter are all searchable as ‘Bars & Venues’ under Stonegate’s managed estate and aren’t on any delivery apps. But the restaurants they share locations with seem to only appear on delivery apps like Deliveroo, and aren’t searchable on Stonegate Group’s website. On the rare occasion that they pop up anywhere else, the information associated with them matches that of Stonegate properties.
For example, the photo that appears alongside the Google Maps result for the Chik Box at 43-47 Chertsey Road in Woking is of a business called The Junction Tap. Additionally, that Chik Box’s address matches The Junction Tap’s. The Junction Tap is a Stonegate property.
At a number of Stonegate Group’s managed estate properties, multiple restaurants run out of one kitchen. Those additional restaurants are exclusive to delivery apps while the businesses they run out of function as separate entities. Stonegate Group is operating ghost kitchens.
What is and isn’t a ghost kitchen is not definitively agreed on. Some use ghost kitchen, virtual restaurant, cloud kitchen, and dark kitchen interchangeably. Others make a distinction between ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants. But all of these terms describe a growing subsection of the restaurant industry. In the broadest possible sense, a ghost kitchen is a restaurant exclusively available for pick-up or delivery with no option for sit down dining. What this looks like in practice varies.
Some ghost kitchens operate out of the back of existing restaurants. They may advertise themselves under a different name or under multiple names across delivery apps. This appears to be the model Stonegate Group employs.
Additionally, a ghost kitchen may be part of a ghost franchise. Under the franchise model, restaurants are given access to branded materials, including the recipes, menu, and publicity images, in exchange for a cut of sales revenue. The most well-known ghost franchise is probably Mr. Beast Burger, which started in the US and has since expanded to Canada, the UK, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Other ghost kitchens operate out of small commercial spaces, food trucks, or RVs completely disconnected from existing sit-down establishments. They can be singular or multiple ghost kitchens housed under one roof. Deliveroo started experimenting with this approach in 2016, launching several of their RooBoxes across the UK. In 2018, they opened their first shared kitchen in Paris.
The recent growth of Ghost Kitchens can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. With restrictions preventing in-person dining, takeout, and ghost kitchens, boomed. Ghost franchises in particular proved popular amongst smaller restaurants looking to make ends meet. And increased attention meant increased investment. Nextbite, which creates ghost franchises and implements them in existing restaurants, received $120million in venture capital funding in October 2020. Their brands include Packed Bowls by Wiz Khalifa, Tender Fix by Noah Schnapp, and ‘Wichcraft from Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio.
Since the pandemic, debate around ghost kitchens and whether or not they are a net positive or negative for the industry have intensified.
Proponents of ghost kitchens argue that they give smaller businesses a chance to compete with big chains on delivery apps since ghost franchises are often tied to recognizable names, have eye-catching branding, and can quickly become familiar favourites of consumers. They also allow those who can’t afford the cost of operating a sit-down restaurant a chance to still pursue their passions. Additionally, ghost kitchens can diversify the cuisine of underserved areas by cheaply operating a variety of establishments from singular locations.
But some argue that ghost franchises harm small businesses by competing with them directly while taking a cut of their profits. Additionally, an oversaturation of ghost kitchens on delivery apps further push local businesses to the margins, particularly ghost kitchens with one menu list themselves multiple times under different names. Establishing ghost franchises could perhaps further cut profits for local businesses if familiar favourites are preferred to new foods by consumers who don’t know an area well and are partial to something they already know they will enjoy.
There are also concerns regarding health and safety. Different food items require different storage and handling, procedures restaurants venturing outside their usual menu fare may not be aware of. An increase in ingredients also means an increase in the risk of cross-contamination, particularly with multiple restaurants operating out of one kitchen.
And, from a purely ethical perspective, there is the issue of transparency. While the information on ghost kitchens exist, and it is possible to identify them, that information has to be sought. It is not freely given or volunteered by the delivery apps or restaurants themselves. Consumers who are entirely unfamiliar with the concept of ghost kitchens are not afforded the opportunity to do their own due diligence and make fully informed decisions about where they want to spend their money.
With the post-pandemic surge in popularity of in-person dining, the face of ghost kitchens continues to change. Dining halls are growing in popularity, with multiple restaurants occupying large spaces on what are typically shorter term leases. These dining halls offer a sit-in option alongside delivery and pickup, but are not full-service restaurants. While dining halls are not ghost kitchens in the traditional sense of the word, the definition could very well change in the coming years.
The industry is emerging, fast-paced, tech-focused, and constantly looking forward in a competition for the attention of investors and consumers alike. It seems more than likely ghost kitchens won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, nor will the debates surrounding their place in the food service industry.
Illustration: Hannah Beggerow