‘Ghost kitchens’ spark overheated health concerns from regulators

Ordering food from restaurants is a timeless practice. But the explosion of the so-called ghost kitchens and similar non-restaurants have been one of the most notable dining trends during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Virtual brands, ghost kitchens, delivery-only concepts — whatever you call them — have flourished during COVID-19.” An eater reported in 2020 ghost kitchens, Modern restaurant kitchen reported earlier this year are “delivery-focused kitchens with no storefront or dining area [that] allow operators to use commercial kitchens – sometimes in shared spaces with other brands – without the overhead of a full restaurant space and staff.

“At the Peach Cobbler Factory in Charlotte, co-owner Vincent Montgomery whips up decadent Southern treats from a kitchen collective called South End Eats,” WSOC-TV station in Charlotte, North Carolina, reported as part of an “investigation” into ghost kitchens in May. “South End Eats has more than 20 food stalls, each filled with small local businesses exclusively online – no dining rooms.”

Virtual restaurants, a close analogue, are delivery-only restaurants that operate out of an existing physical restaurant space, usually while that physical restaurant continues to serve as a dine-in restaurant. Some virtual restaurants partner with well-known regional and national restaurant chains, incl Chile and of Bertucci.

Regardless of the model, ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants are helping both existing and aspiring brick-and-mortar restaurateurs weather the current storm of staffing challenges, supply chain issues, high food, equipment and rental costs and various impacts and restrictions related to COVID.

Despite their advantages, however, ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants are increasingly in the sights of some food safety activists and regulators. A piece this week in Boston Globe— complete with a scary headline — underscores some of the concerns of public health regulators in the Bay State.

One criticism leveled is the claim that customers have less access to restaurant letter ratings or other health department ratings.”as easily as they could in the traditional restaurants that they might be it is required display proof of inspection in their storefronts or dining establishments.”

True! But customers who order food by phone or online for delivery from any brick-and-mortar restaurant — or who live in a city or state that doesn’t require physical posting of such information — will also never see the same posted result. And, to be clear, restaurant inspection ratings are uncertain instrument to determine how safe the restaurant’s food is to eat. For example, as I noted in 2019 columnwonderful an investigation from the food website An eater in New York’s restaurant inspection regime concluded that the city’s “broken” inspection system is forcing city restaurants to they were not engaging in practices that would make customers sick, yet “game the system to pass the inspection of the city’s notoriously overzealous health department.”

Other concerns of health inspectors expressed in WSOC and Globe the articles seem to have little to do with food safety. For example, the WSOC article noted that Adam Dietrich, a food safety consultant quoted in the report, expressed concern “about whether a restaurant can safely offer different menus.”

This argument suggests that restaurants cannot safely serve food from more than one menu. However, most restaurants have multiple menus (breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, happy hour, children’s, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.), and sometimes even serve items from each menu at the same time (eg. breakfast all day)!

Some in Massachusetts are expressing similar concerns.

“If we think a restaurant doesn’t cook burgers and there’s a foodborne illness involving burgers and we think, ‘This can’t come from [that restaurant] because they don’t cook burgers,” that’s a problem, said Timothy McDonald, health director in Needham, Massachusetts. Globe.

like Dietrich‘s claims, this deeply flawed argument suggests that for the safety of Needham residents, the city should ban restaurants from offering daily specials or updating their menus at all, because city inspectors can’t do their jobs properly unless they they know what’s on the menu at any restaurant at any time.

Despite the fact that many of the concerns about ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants seem vague and exaggerated, that doesn’t mean everything criticisms leveled at sector are two-story. some reports they have supposedfor example, various food safety violations and failure to obtain proper permits by Reef Technology, one of the largest players in the industry.

Never mind the fact that traditional restaurants sometimes commit food safety violations and fail to obtain proper permits. The fact that the allegations against Riff came to light and stimulated changes doesn’t exactly support the arguments of those who suggest that ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants somehow operate in the shadows with impunity.

Robert Earl, CEO of the parent company that owns Bertucci’s, told Globe that what matters to customer safety is how food is prepared and stored and sanitation practices in the facility. If inspectors want to know what goes on in ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants, “[a]All they’ll have to do when they walk through the door…is ask that. No one hides it.”

Ghost kitchens. Virtual restaurants. The names may be new. The concepts differ slightly from others that have preceded them. They can present some regulatory challenges. The food they serve – like the food served by traditional restaurants – can sometimes make people sick. But so far there is little or no evidence that the food is prepared in ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants is less safe than food in other restaurants. What’s more, at their core, these concepts use licensed and inspected food preparation facilities to prepare food for delivery to willing customers. While this is the case, critics should note that not every new idea is an invitation to create a host of new regulations.

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