At the beginning of the pandemic, when dining rooms shuttered per state mandate, a company that managed parking lots positioned itself for success. Reef Technology, based in Florida, had started tip-toeing into the food industry via something akin to food carts: trailers parked in lots that housed kitchens. Instead of serving walk-up customers, however, these restaurants existed only virtually as brands listed on third-party apps like DoorDash and Uber Eats. That way, these trailers could house several concepts at once — one trailer could shape-shift from wing shack to noodle bar to bakery, handing off meals to delivery drivers. Over time, Reef nabbed deals with chefs and celebrities, banking off their brand recognition: David Chang, Rachael Ray, even DJ Khaled had virtual restaurants through Reef, set up in cities around the country. These brands are not labeled as ghost kitchens on apps.
Business boomed, but a Willamette Week investigation indicates its moment in the sun may be waning. According to reporter Sophie Peel, Portland Reef Kitchens made about $17,858 each day in 2021, or $6.5 million for the year. Over the last three years, however, Reef has run into consistent issues with the Multnomah County health department. Public documents obtained by the alt mag show health inspectors regularly encountering rats, leaking gray water, and overflowing dumpsters at Reef trailer locations. Willamette Week reports that the health department threatened the company with civil penalties, and the office of Mayor Ted Wheeler had begun looking into potential policy changes and regulations for ghost kitchens. According to Willamette Week, Reef has shut down or removed trailers from 15 of its 23 permitted locations around the city.
On paper, a ghost kitchen seems like, if not a practically sound business model, a financially advantageous one. It’s a way to quadruple or quintuple the business of a single food cart in one location, with a limited staff. But, as a Reef employee told Willamette Week, Reef staff received very little actual training on these carts. Yelp reviews for ghost kitchen “restaurants” in Portland are overwhelmingly negative. And while food cart pods continue to open around the city, most of Portland’s locally grown experiments with ghost kitchens — Chefstable’s Kitchen Collective, chef Diane Lam’s Prey + Tell — have closed. As diners continue to rally around local restaurants and food carts, the idea of ordering from a parasitic rat king of chain restaurant concepts that amount to little more than recipe cards taped to a trailer wall is less than appealing. Read the full Willamette Week story here.