The surging sector can feel, at times, like a Wild West of regulations.
The pandemic that began in 2019 and now continues into 2022 has devastated the restaurant and foodservice industry, and digital transformation will change the model for years to come. One of the business avenues that has grown significantly is the ghost kitchen. Accelerated by the continued growth of off-premises/delivery sales. Digital ordering and deliveries in the U.S. have grown 300 percent faster than dine-in sales since 2014. These delivery-only kitchens (where there is no dine-in service) may also include mobile kitchens designed for pickup only (food trucks or trailers where food preparation occurs and delivery service pick up is completed). This business model is expected to grow in the U.S. from $43.1 billion in sales in 2019 to $71.4 billion by 2027.
Foodservice establishments continue to cause the greatest number of foodborne disease outbreaks every year. Before the pandemic, as reported by the CDC in 2017, 60 percent of all foodborne disease outbreaks in the U.S. were caused by foodservice venues. Today, when you look at the most currently available data (2020), nothing has changed. There were 184 outbreaks (out of 299 total equals 61 percent), 3,074 illnesses, 337 hospitalizations, and three deaths caused by foodservice establishments in one year.
Ghost kitchens operate like any other foodservice kitchen, preparing and serving foods for immediate consumption based on customer orders, and ghost kitchens follow the same U.S. State version of the FDA Food Code that all foodservice establishments must follow (and are regulated by local and state health departments). The CDC currently does not track and report foodborne disease outbreaks caused by ghost kitchen foodservice.
However, because of the rapid growth of this business model via growing omnichannel ordering demand, menu expansion, geographic expansion, retail grocery entry, and new ghost kitchen startups, often led by digital technology businesses (and even social media celebrities) that are not the traditional foodservice enterprise companies (i.e., restaurant chains), there is a strong probability that this business model will contribute to the burden of foodborne diseases caused by foodservice establishments in the U.S. In support of this in the absence of any CDC or state reports on outbreaks caused by ghost kitchen business, there is considerable social media post about illness and food quality issues specific to delivery from ghost kitchen brands.
Thus, now is the time for all of the business partners that use this model to ensure food safety, including those businesses that license their brand and menu items to be prepared and sold by ghost kitchen businesses (those that establish the kitchens).
What are the food safety risk unique to ghost kitchens and the best practices to reduce these risk?
The FDA Food Code is used to regulate ghost kitchen establishments (via US State food codes), permitting, plan review, and health inspections; see the state of Georgia requirements as example). The FDA Food Code, does not specifically address ghost kitchen operations, but does outline food safety requirements of mobile foodservice establishments based on a menu prepared and served in mobile and fixed food trailers as extensions of brick and mortar foodservice establishments.
These include requirements for personal hygiene, food preparation, temperature/equipment requirements, safe potable water and sewage use, physical facility design for food safety, chemical safety, servicing, and enforcement of compliance.
Thus, if a ghost kitchen business location with or without a mobile foodservice component follows these rules, the risk of causing a foodborne disease outbreak would be very low. Nevertheless, because of the digital transformation of the foodservice industry, its rapid growth in a very short time, and its current model for location selection, set up, and operations, there are some inherent risk associated with ghost kitchen operations that should be considered.
Kitchen design and location: Traditional foodservice permitting of a restaurant for food preparation and sales to the public (e.g., called a plan review by the local health department) are based on the menu items prepared in the facility and the facility design (called safe flow of foods) to ensure food safety.
Likewise, the inspections of the foodservice operations to ensure the public health, and to ensure compliance to food code, are also based on the menu and facility design. If menu items and preparation methods change, there can be new food safety risk introduced into the kitchen beyond what the kitchen was designed to produce. This is augmented if the volume of sales (deliveries) is too large to be accommodated by the labor and kitchen space/equipment use design; a likely risk from the large number of virtual customers that can order from any one kitchen via any delivery service app or directly via social media (see below).
Because of the access to a large number of customers via digital marketing and ordering, some ghost kitchen businesses have evolved out of social media celebrities or directly by social media businesses due to the large volume of potential customers. The business model is the same as a ghost kitchen business where a social media company partners with a kitchen design and location company. However, some social media celebrities (with access to their millions of followers) also offer their menus to existing restaurants for the opportunity to prepare and sell the menu from their existing kitchens (which comes with millions of potential customers). One ghost kitchen startup specializes in linking pre-existing restaurant kitchens with new virtual restaurant concepts where the existing restaurant kitchen can make food for another brand while maintaining its own establishment.
This has resulted in the exponential growth of several social media launched ghost kitchen businesses that bring with this thousands of digital customers; all of which can overwhelm a foodservice establishment designed for different menus and lower volume sales.
Because of the faster brand launch a new restaurant concept can take using a ghost kitchen partner (e.g., 21 days versus 6–8 months for a traditional restaurant brick and mortar), and almost an immediate access to customers ordering food via digital marketing, many of the ghost kitchen establishments are not properly vetted by a regulatory authority that would normally perform a plan review of the facility and the menu before they are in operations and serving food. Some ghost kitchen facilities may also not be constructed properly according to best practices in the industry to prevent cross contamination/cross contact (see best practices below).
This can lead to significant food safety risk from cross contamination of foods and cross contact with allergens in addition to the risk of less regulatory oversight to ensure food safety and the public health.
Other contributing factors related to kitchen design for safety in ghost kitchens include:
Some ghost kitchen businesses do not have the proper portable water systems and grey water handling (wastewater) in their mobile foodservice establishments
Likewise, without an early regulatory authority oversight for kitchen design and menu preparation, customers do not know if their digital order was prepared in a kitchen according to food safety standards. In many ghost kitchens, even when inspected by a local health inspector, the grade/scores of the inspection are not available to the public. A recent CDC study showed that locations where regulatory authorities nor foodservice establishments disclose inspection results to the public via health inspection grades/scores had a higher number of outbreaks per one thousand establishments per year than their alternatives.
Ingredient sourcing: Methods to ensure safe source of foods using only food safe ingredient and packaging suppliers (e.g., GFSI and FDA FSMA compliant supplier food manufacturing facility’s) is critical to assurance of food safety in a foodservice establishment. When there are no established food safety specifications and monitoring of food manufacturers who make the ingredients and products used by a ghost kitchen, this can increase the food safety risk of all the food preparation processes; this has led to many foodborne disease outbreaks from other foodservice establishments. Because many ghost kitchen businesses source multiple ingredients (some of which are used to make different menu items for multiple branded products) sometimes without the same requirement for food safety specifications that the enterprise brand requires of its suppliers, there is a probable food safety risk increase during the food preparation and service phases of the ghost kitchen business.
For example, if the ghost kitchen business does not have a robust supply chain food safety management program to ensure ingredients are made free of allergens or other hazards, and the kitchens are not designed to ensure separation of raw proteins or an allergen containing product, there could be an increase in the risk of cross contamination and foodborne illness or an allergic illness by customers. Because some customers have intolerances to certain ingredients like gluten that can lead to illness, the same risk of exposure to these ingredients may occur without a robust supply chain food safety management program.
Many multi-unit retail foodservice businesses have established supply-chain management programs to ensure that each facility/location uses approved sources of food ingredients and products vetted by corporate program specifications. A foundation of these specifications should be a suppliers’ compliance to the FDA FSMA rules to manufacture human foods. One of the first elements that a supply chain food safety management program should include is a review of and expectation that all suppliers have developed a food safety plan for each product, and that high risk products are monitored to ensure execution of this FDA requirement (for more details on how a foodservice business may develop a supply chain food safety management program based on the FDA FSMA rules, see this resource).
Menu preparation for food safety: There can be multiple unique/different hazards (e.g., Salmonella Typhi in raw chicken and E. coli 0157 on produce) associated with one or more food preparation steps (e.g., cooking chicken and sourcing and washing produce) just to prepare one menu item made in a foodservice establishment. There can also be one common hazard (employees working when sick with Hepatitis A or Norovirus) associated with all the food preparation steps in the daily production of all menu items in a foodservice establishment. Because of this, many enterprise foodservice businesses (often called chain restaurants) that have multiple locations across the U.S. develop very specific food safety specifications based on the hazards associated with the preparation of their menu items.
For example, a restaurant brand that prepares and sells chicken sandwiches may have requirements for safe handling of raw chicken and washing produce integrated into its recipe to reduce the risk of cross contamination and requires employees to be trained on these requirements. However, if the ghost kitchen makes the same menu item but omits the required specification and training (and may not segregate raw chicken handling areas from RTE food prep), the product is not being produced in the same manner as the brand and its customers may expect.
A Process HACCP plan is normally used by these enterprise foodservice businesses to discover the hazards associated with all recipes, and this plan is then used to develop and execute a Food Safety Management System for the business. Each recipe/procedure that involves a source of ingredients, receiving and storing them, and then is used to prepare and serve each menu item is analyzed to determine if there are any potential hazards at each process (e.g., Salmonella or Clostridium perfringens on raw chicken that can contaminate hands/gloves and food contact surfaces).
Next, the controls needed to prevent each hazard are defined. These hazard controls at each food preparation process can either be a Critical Control Point (CCP), e.g., cooking the chicken to 165 degrees and/or a Prerequisite Control Point e.g., ensuring areas where raw chicken is prepared are properly cleaned and sanitized, and employees wash hands and wear gloves properly after handling raw chicken. This process approach to HACCP is recommended by the FDA Food Code (see Annex 4) to assist foodservice establishments in achieving Active Managerial Control of food safety risk. It also includes the need for a Prerequisite Program to define and control potential hazards associated with source of safe ingredients, cleaning and sanitation, employee health, hand hygiene, and other common food processes that occur in a foodservice establishment. Because a ghost kitchen prepares multiple menus from different foodservice brands, the development of a Process HACCP plan is even more important to ensure food safety. For more information on how to develop a Process HACCP plan for foodservice and how to develop and use this plan in a Food Safety Management System for the restaurant, see this resource.
Delivery: Two safety concerns of off-premise sales are the food safety risks associated with foodservice food preparation (generally caused by the hazards associated with foods prepared and served to customers for immediate consumption; see above), and the additional risk of keeping the food safe after the food has been prepared, including holding (e.g., keeping food hot or cold to prevent growth of pathogens), handling (e.g., preventing tampering of the food), transporting (e.g., preventing contamination of the packaging), and delivering the food to a customer (e.g., ensuring customer is not exposed to an infected delivery person). Because customers are ordering from a mobile app or web site, they may also be at a higher risk for allergens due to the lack of avoidance messaging that is normally part of the in-restaurant and/or brand web site or app ordering process.
Ensure safety in the kitchen—Establish Active Managerial Control of all foodborne illness risk factors to ensure prepared foods start their journey to the customer safe
Ensure safety beyond the kitchen—Ensure the third-party delivery are approved to sell and deliver the menu, and ensure you both follow the guidelines that include inspection of the delivery vehicle to ensure cleanliness, ensuring drivers are using proper disinfection protocols, confirming drivers are trained on proper food handling risks (keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold) and establishing personal hygiene expectations and wellness screens for drivers (not driving and delivering foods while sick with symptoms of COVID-19 or foodborne illnesses).
Ghost kitchen operators are also encouraged to order from their menu while at home in order to see firsthand the off-premise experience (is the food properly hot or cold, not spilled, are tamper-evident seals intact, etc.).
Go the extra mile to gain loyalty (i.e., the customers continue to reorder). Provide educational materials and reminders for the consumer to enhance their trust of the food, its sanitary transportation, and allergen safety (avoidance messaging), and get feedback from them about their experience (e.g., will they reorder) especially if they report a negative experience.
Show the customer what you are doing to protect them for their safety. Providing hand sanitizing wipes with each order for both third-party delivery persons and guests demonstrates a commitment to safety. For example, placement of the wipes on the outside of the packaging signals guests to clean hands before eating.
During this pandemic, the digital transformation of off-premise sales/delivery of food from restaurants, and the growth of ghost kitchens have been the lifeline for saving many foodservice businesses. Ghost kitchens offer customers the opportunity to purchase more variety of foods from brands they love and trust, and off-premise sales are exceeding dining room restaurant sales due to the digital transformation of the food industry. Therefore, some of the most important actions a ghost kitchen business, and the brands that license their menus to them can do is to ensure food safety of each and every product made. Ghost kitchen businesses also have a responsibility to produce and sell a restaurant brands menu as a meaningful representation of the restaurant brands products including the quality and food safety expectations of its customers. If these actions are taken now by the ghost kitchen businesses, we can reduce the risk of foodborne disease outbreaks while growing the foodservice industry.
Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Dr. Ben Chapman for helpful insights into social media ghost kitchen concept
Hal King, Ph.D. is the Managing Partner of Active Food Safety (www.activefoodsafety.com ), an advisory services company whose partners developed the free EmergiProtect mobile app for the restaurant industry. Hal can be reached at email@example.com.
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The surging sector can feel, at times, like a Wild West of regulations.