It’s Friday night. After a harrowing week of putting in overtime at the office, trying to keep a regular workout schedule and attempting to eat relatively healthy home-cooked meals, exhaustion and hunger have taken over. So I do what any other person in 2020 would do – I take out my phone, open up my favourite food-delivery app and start scrolling.
The options seem endless – Italian, burgers, Thai, pho, ramen. On top of all that, apps like Foodora are branching out to deliver groceries, pet food, flowers and even alcohol straight to your door.
We’ve quickly become acclimatized to using our phones to order food and track it every step of the way from preparation, to pick up, to which route the bicycle courier is taking to avoid the steep hill that I live on.
But it wasn’t too long ago that it felt like the only option for straight-to-your-door dining was a charred cardboard-flavoured pizza. Uber Eats came into existence a mere five years ago, and has already crept its way into our everyday lexicon, becoming a noun, a verb and a way of life.
And as the demand for takeout and delivery increases, restaurants are drawn to the apps that make the process smoother and more convenient – which in turn lures in more customers, eager to avoid the crowds and enjoy their favourite meals from the comfort of their own home.
At Pai Northern Thai Kitchen, husband-and-wife duo chef Nuit and Jeff Regular have had to make drastic changes to accommodate the growing demand. Walk past Pai any night of the week and you’ll find customers lined up out the door, with a steady stream of delivery drivers and takeout customers pushing their way in and out.
“As the demand goes up, we don’t want to be the place that says ‘okay, we’re done, we can’t do any more.’ So we’re always trying to find a way to meet the demand and make sure that the efficiency is where it needs to be,” says Jeff Regular.
Over the last few years, they’ve seen a huge spike in takeout and delivery. So much so, that these orders now account for nearly a third of their business.
“On any given day we literally have two separate kitchen teams at Pai”
When restaurants first start fulfilling takeout and delivery orders for third-party apps, it’s only a matter of making a few extra dishes here and there. But as the demand grows, suddenly they have to allocate more of their time and resources to keep up with the influx of incoming orders – while also accounting for the apps taking up to 30 cents off each dollar of sales.
“We actually opened up a second kitchen in Pai,” says Regular. “We expanded and we took over the space next door to us, mostly for kitchen space. This helps to meet the demand of our delivery orders, but also to relieve our main kitchen so they can concentrate on our dine-in customers. On any given day, we literally have two separate kitchen teams.”
But even with two kitchens, the restaurant is still expanding its capacity to fulfill takeout and delivery orders. Out in Etobicoke, Pai recently launched a satellite location inside of Kitchen Hub – a space described by owners Adam Armeland and Oren Borovitch as Canada’s first “virtual food hall.”
Alongside Pai, Kitchen Hub houses outposts of the Carbon Bar, Kanga Aussie Meat Pies, Greenhouse Juice Co., Dessert by the Cheesecake Factory, Blondies Pizza and a convenience store. Find Kitchen Hub on the takeout and delivery apps and you can order from any of the concepts onsite – or a combination of them. But each restaurant operates behind the scenes at the virtual food hall. As a delivery driver or someone picking up takeout, all you’ll see is a small waiting area with one service counter and a screen system to let you know when your order is up.
“We’re kind of like a micro-fulfillment centre for food,” says Borovitch. “If you think about what Amazon actually does – they take a product in, somebody orders it, they get it out really quickly. We’re doing kind of the same thing, just using different pieces. Somebody places an order on Uber Eats, the restaurant cooks it, now you have a product ready. We are the fastest at getting that product out to the driver, to the customer.”
Because of the lower population density in Etobicoke, the restaurants operating out of Kitchen Hub can reach a wider radius of takeout and delivery customers than their downtown locations.
It also takes the burden off of restaurants trying to provide a pleasant atmosphere for dine-in clientele. “Picture the biker coming in with their big backpack and forgetting to turn off their headlamp in a nice restaurant on a Saturday night and totally ruining the whole experience,” says Borovitch.
Rather than expending money and resources to open a brand new location and attempting to replicate the atmosphere and service of their first spot, restaurants simply rent space within Kitchen Hub. They send their own cooks to work in the allocated kitchen space, and Kitchen Hub takes care of the upfront costs and the front-of-house side of the business.
“We’re just a service and infrastructure that allows restaurants to do what they need to do in a new area,” says Armeland. “We have a playbook that teaches them how to do different things and switch from a brick-and-mortar restaurant to an e-commerce restaurant and what that means.”
But it’s not just the brands at Kitchen Hub that are taking advantage of the opportunity to earn new revenue without a new outpost. Whether you call them ghost restaurants, virtual restaurants or takeout- and delivery-only eateries, these places are popping up all over the city.
Over on Ossington, Bobbie Sue’s Mac and Cheese serves its namesake dish out of a takeout window with a roof overhead. And the Food Dudes are getting in on the action with their new Middle Eastern ghost restaurant LafLaf.
If you’re hankering for Vietnamese fare during your lunch hour you can order from North Saigon on Uber Eats, but head to the address listed and you won’t find any sign of the restaurant. That’s because chef-owner Kim Vo operates her brand out of a commercial kitchen.
Due to the high commission that delivery apps take, Vo only opens North Saigon during lunch hours, a couple of days a week to supplement the income she makes from the catering side of her business. The rest of the time, she can turn off the app, preventing customers from placing orders.
“Maybe in the future, if things work out, I might do a brick-and-mortar location. But for now, I think this is really easy. And it allows me to have a little bit more flexibility with my schedule” says Vo.
Google “North Saigon” and you’ll see Vo’s carefully laid-out website with information about her and her business, but try searching for some of the other ghost restaurants and outside of the apps you’ll draw a blank. These restaurants essentially don’t exist. They’re brands made up by restaurants as a bid to draw in more customers.
“If you’re successful, Uber Eats will encourage you to launch a different operation, or brand. And it’s cheap. You’re using the ingredients that you normally would be using, but it’s under different brands. Say for example, you have a Vietnamese brand, then you can do a Thai brand, or a Filipino brand. But it’s all in the same kitchen. And maybe customers don’t know that it’s the same place but it actually is,” says Vo.
There might be 10 different restaurants, all listed under one address, with one kitchen team running all of these various invented concepts. And as operating these virtual restaurants becomes easier, it gets more difficult for consumers to find out where their food is really coming from.
Jill Chen uses ritual to sell dumplings out of her fifth-floor downtown condo
At Richmond and Spadina, Jill Chen uses Ritual to sell dumplings, wontons and sauces out of her fifth-floor condo.
Chen has done it the right way. She has the required food safety certifications and passed the DineSafe inspection – and she doesn’t live in the condo. The unit is a studio space used by herself and her husband Kevin Hewitt for their food styling and photography work. Chen received ample compliments when she cooked for Hewitt’s clients in the studio, so she began selling her dumplings, first from word of mouth and a sandwich board outside of the building, then on Ritual.
Like Vo, Chen appreciates the ability to run her takeout spot Freestyle Farm Luncheonette on her schedule – turning the app on for a few hours a day and off whenever it suits her.
“My whole thing going into this, was that I didn’t want to be stuck in a restaurant. I didn’t want to be a slave to the work. I just wanted to cook whatever I wanted to make,” says Chen. “I just like to do different things and just offer it and if people buy it, they buy it.”
As home cooks with no experience in the restaurant industry, both Chen and Vo were able to use the takeout and delivery apps to boost their income, without the investment required to open up a restaurant.
“My business now is going into year three and prior to this, I had no experience running a restaurant,” explains Vo. “It’s a good way for entrepreneurs like myself to gain a little bit of knowledge and experience before taking the plunge.”
But while the order-in culture is helping homecooks transition into becoming professionals, the rest of us are cooking less and less. In downtown Toronto, there are condo towers being built – and lived in – without ovens in the units.
As we become more connected to these convenient services, we're farther removed from the food we're eating and where it really comes from. We choose takeout and a TV screen over sitting down in a restaurant or with a homecooked meal, and connecting face-to-face with our friends and family.
We’re in the age of ordering everything to our door and expecting it in no time flat, where restaurants, stores and human connections only exist on the little screens in our pockets.