Ghost kitchens gaining popularity in Iowa — and restaurant association says they’re here to stay

Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 10:45 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - As the pandemic first shut down dine-in services at restaurants across Iowa and then slowed down orders, Edison Pub & Eatery in Cedar Rapids needed to do something new.

“We were thinking how to get more business, get our sales, survive,” Sam Tika, Edison’s general manager, said.

So in January, they opened a new business, Zest Mediterranean Grill, offering the recipes from Tika’s family and heritage that he did not see reflected in menus around eastern Iowa.

“I was born in the Mediterranean, the Balkans and that area, so it’s always been my dream to have something with that concept,” he said.

But when customers arrive at Zest’s location on Northland Ave. NE, they won’t find the restaurant’s dining room or area to sit down and eat.

Zest is a ghost kitchen, a commercial kitchen, typically in a restaurant, that only offers to-go or delivery service. In this case, it shares a kitchen and a staff with Edison, which is a traditional, dine-in restaurant.

While Zest offers online ordering through its own website, much of the business’s orders come through third-party delivery companies, like Chomp, Grubhub, and DoorDash, so when drivers pick up food from Zest, they have to come to Edison.

It isn’t the only ghost kitchen in Cedar Rapids.

People can order barbeque from Famous Dave’s, which is cooked at Granite City Food & Brewery on 1st Ave. SE.

Not far from Granite City, MrBeast Burger recently opened a ghost kitchen in Red Robin.

“We have started to see the rise of the ghost kitchen,” Jessica Dunker, the president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said.

Dunker said as delivery websites and apps gained popularity during the pandemic, so did ghost kitchens, though the concept existed before then, typically in larger, metropolitan areas.

The relationship between delivery services and restaurants is not always profitable for restaurants, according to Dunker.

“The ghost kitchen, by eliminating most of the front-of-the-house staff, eliminating a lot of the building costs, required to have people on site, simply being a to-go kitchen is one way that restaurants were trying to find profitability under a third-party delivery system model,” she said.

Dunker expects ghost kitchens will stick around and keep growing post-pandemic, saying the pandemic-fueled customer shift to more food delivery services won’t diminish, and could see more popularity as restaurants currently struggle to rehire staff.

“For people that are looking at being strapped for employees, the ghost kitchen is a model that you can create another line of revenue and still operate with essentially the same number of employees,” she said.

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