Boo! Ghost kitchens are popping up in York County — but what does it mean for you?

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

When one York City restaurateur first learned about so-called "ghost kitchens," it seemed like a great opportunity to bolster his own dreams.

The concept is simple enough: Local brick-and-mortar restaurants prepare and package orders from an online brand, handing the food off to DoorDash or Uber Eats drivers from their storefront. Often, the customers have no idea where their Thrilled Cheese or Mr. Beast Burger was made. Unless they compare street addresses, they won't realize that more than one brand of cheeseburger, for example, can originate from the same location.

The online brands offer the local operator a share of the profits — typically between 30% and 50% — in exchange for the entrepreneur fulfilling the glut of online orders in total anonymity. Sometimes they provide the ingredients themselves. Other times, the branded food served by the operator's kitchen is virtually identical to the unbranded items.

"They don't do any of the work," said the York City operator, who spoke anonymously out of fear of reprisal. "But they get a percentage."

A MrBeast Burger cheeseburger and fries ordered from a local "ghost kitchen," Wednesday, April 12, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo
(Photo: The York Dispatch)

When first opening up his small business, this restaurateur utilized his ghost brand partner as a way to establish a steady revenue stream. Three years later, however, he feels he has outgrown the trend.

While ghost kitchens might provide better food options for those looking to grab a quick bite, the online eateries can also hurt independently operated small businesses. The small business owners can feel trapped under the terms of the contracts.

>> Please consider subscribing to support local journalism. 

Customers, meanwhile, are drawn to the seeming convenience and marketing prowess of nationally recognized brands. The local restaurateur who operates the ghost kitchen doesn't necessarily have a budget to advertise his own menu items.

"I've already outgrown it," he said. "But if I want to replace (the ghost kitchen) I'll have to double the revenue stream for it to make sense."

For many York County residents, the concept of a ghost kitchen might be entirely new.

Have you ever scrolled through DoorDash or Uber Eats and came across a restaurant unfamiliar to you? Even though the app says the restaurant is located just down the road, you haven't seen a new storefront or building pop up.

Why does the address listed for a gourmet grilled cheese spot come up as an IHOP on Google Maps?

Welcome to the world of ghost kitchens.

Reporter Tina Locurto removes two identical cheeseburger and fries orders from Denny’s and The Burger Den, which operates out of Denny’s kitchen on Loucks Road, at The York Dispatch in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, April 12, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The phenomenon is sweeping the nation's food delivery apps, including in the backyards of York County's residents.

The virtual restaurants, also known as "dark kitchens," cropped up as early as 2019 when Uber founder Travis Kalanick invested in CloudKitchens, a company that lets anybody open their own virtual eatery with the promise of a low-stakes investment and quick profit turnaround.

More:Bar flies and a repeat violation at one area restaurant: Inspections

More:York County gets mixed results in new air quality report

More:Central York tried to intimidate book ban protesters, students say. They won't back down.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began and online ordering became the norm, such kitchens expanded exponentially — not only in major city networks but in small towns and counties.

In York County, virtual kitchen Thrilled Cheese can be ordered at 108 Pauline Drive in York Township. A quick search on Google Maps, however, will show what actually occupies the land: an IHOP.

A beaststyle double burger, left, and beast style fries from MrBeast Burger are shown at The York Dispatch in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, April 12, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo
(Photo: The York Dispatch)

The Burger Den displays an address of 1199 Loucks Road on UberEats. The location is currently occupied by Denny's in West Manchester Township on Route 30.

Each kitchen operating out of the single physical restaurant has its own menu — and doesn't even need to be serving similar cuisine. American fast-casual chains, for example, could be cooking up Mexican, Italian or Chinese dishes for any number of ghost kitchens.

As a partner with the ghost kitchen, the restaurant is responsible for purchasing all packaging materials and ingredients. The restaurateur did not disclose how much that amount is.

Those in the restaurant industry view ghost kitchens as an "incubator" for investment, meaning they can operate their brand out of an existing restaurant building without the added expenses of rent, staff and other fees.

Reporter Tina Locurto examines a burger and fries from MrBeast Burger, which operates as a ghost kitchen, at The York Dispatch in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, April 12, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The rise in ghost kitchen partnerships is particularly common with chain restaurants, since both can mutually benefit from an increase in business, said Ben Fileccia, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association.

"Although it provides more options for the public," he said, "I don't think it's necessarily infringing too much on the brick-and mortar restaurants."

In an effort to learn more about ordering from ghost kitchens and how the process works, The York Dispatch ordered several to-go orders using the delivery food service app UberEats. We placed three orders in total: two from the same physical restaurant and one from a food truck in York City selling the popular virtual restaurant Mr. Beast burger.

First, a "build me a burger" from The Burger Den, a ghost kitchen located in Denny's in West Manchester Township: The burger, with lettuce, tomato, red onions, pickles and American cheese, came to $20.49 with the delivery fee, tip and tax. There was no option on UberEats to pick up the order; only delivery was available.

Reporter Tina Locurto carries two to-go orders out the door at Denny’s in York City, Wednesday, April 12, 2023. The orders made and packaged identically were purchased using the UBER eats app to order similar burgers from Denny’s and from The Burger Den, who operates as a ghost kitchen using Denny’s facilities. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Second, The York Dispatch placed a nearly identical burger order from the Denny's restaurant — which we could choose a pickup order for. This build-your-own burger, with all the same toppings, came to $13.76 with tax. Arriving at Denny's around noon on a Wednesday, the first thing very apparent is the lack of signage and indicators that The Burger Den would even exist there.

The hostess at Denny's immediately recognized the name from our two orders placed and asked if we also wanted to pick up The Burger Den order — even though we had already paid for delivery.

The second thing that became apparent was that the packaging looked identical, even though the two orders were from different restaurants — The Burger Den and Denny's. Both burgers, too, looked identical and tasted virtually the same.

Another order we placed, for a Mr. Beast Burger, came in bright, colorful packaging unique to the ghost kitchen brand.

>> Please consider subscribing to support local journalism. 

Mr. Beast, a popular social media influencer with over 100 million YouTube subscribers, launched his virtual kitchen brand in 2020. Since then, his chain has flourished, with hundreds of locations across the United States, according to his video on the topic.

Messages left with various online restaurant brands associated with ghost kitchens were either not returned or received boilerplate responses that emphasized the companies' partnership with local restaurateurs.

A cheeseburger and fries ordered through UBER eats from either Denny’s or the ghost kitchen, The Burger Den, which operates out of Denny’s kitchen on Loucks Road, at The York Dispatch in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, April 12, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Under Pennsylvania’s Retail Food Facility Safety Act, a ghost kitchen may be considered a retail food facility and require licensing and inspections by the state Department of Agriculture, according to department spokesperson Shannon Powers.

"Ghost kitchens subject to licensure are treated like other shared facilities, in which one or more food businesses with different owners use the same physical food preparation facility and operate under a shared facility agreement," Powers said. "Each food business owner using this kitchen must have their own license or registration."

More:How did York City's elected controller get the OK to sign off on contracts for her nonprofit?

More:Rain will reign over weekend weather in York County

More:York County celebrates Prom 2023

While an entire facility is subject to inspection at any time, penalties or violations against one facility would not necessarily impact the other — that could depend on the specific violation, Powers said.

"For example, if the cooler is not keeping food at safe temperatures, it would impact both operations," Powers added. "If one facility does not have a certified food employee, that would be unique to the facility in violation."

Local consumers, meanwhile, may want to take a closer look at their food delivery apps.

The burger and fries they order may have a ghostly origin.