The ghost at the table

Restaurants relied on delivery to get them through the lockdown. Customers are back in dining rooms, but the industry is forever changed

Over 10,000 restaurants across the country closed as a result of the pandemic, according to Restaurants Canada. 

Despite Atlantic Canada’s relative success in controlling COVID-19, the restaurant industry’s latest survey data shows that there are still 9,600 restaurant jobs in Nova Scotia alone that haven’t recovered from the financial hit. That’s a quarter of the province’s food-service workforce, with seven out of 10 food-service businesses operating at a loss, or “barely scraping by.” 

Locally owned businesses have taken the hardest hit. With each additional restriction and lockdown, owners were stuck between shutting their doors entirely, or opening them for delivery drivers and take-out. While many were learning to work from home, restaurants were transforming. The pivot came at a cost.

At the Ardmore, take-out and delivery orders currently make up 50 per cent of the business, says co-owner Kelly Cormier. Photo: Steve Smith

“When it happened, when we started using Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes, it was a lot,” says Kelly Cormier, co-owner of the Ardmore Tea Room. She says that orders from the apps currently make up to 50 per cent of the restaurant’s business, even since the return of in-person dining.

Because they weren’t sure how their menu would translate in takeout, they decided to operate under a different name on Uber Eats and Skip The Dishes. For locals, the Ardmore has been the longstanding breakfast joint. It’s a go-to, it doesn’t disappoint. So when they made the decision to operate online, they “didn’t want to have it be Ardmore, and have people go ‘yeah!’”

Operating as The Breakfast Joint just made sense — and the Ardmore isn’t the only restaurant in Halifax to make that sort of shift.

In the industry they’re called ghost, cloud, or dark kitchens: restaurants that operate as delivery only. Cormier explains that their prices are higher at The Breakfast Joint as a way to offset the 30-per-cent service fee from companies like Uber Eats and Skip The Dishes. 

“Because our prices are so low at the Ardmore, there’s no real room to add a 30-per-cent charge,” she says, explaining that there’s a risk of losing money otherwise. 

While attractive to local businesses that have been fighting to stay afloat, the ghost kitchen model may be the very thing to threaten them as big competitors join the fray. 

“The whole notion of ordering online for everything — whether it’s Amazon for clothes, or supplies, or food, or whatever it may be — really became more of an everyday thing rather than the exception,” Susi Graf, marketing director of Ghost Kitchen Brands, says. And corporate food chains are catching on.

Ghost Kitchen Brands is a Canadian company that provides large-scale kitchens for prominent food services, like Cinnabon and Quiznos. They rely on third-party couriers to deliver their foods, services, while offering takeout in some locations. There are Ghost Kitchen Brand kitchens in Alberta and Ontario, and soon, Quebec.

The company has seen “enormous growth” since the pandemic. After ending 2020 with 23 kitchens, she says that they hope to end this year with up to 100 kitchens opened. Graf explains that the model lets brands to get into locations that they might not see viable. The risk of opening in a new location, and hiring and training a team, lessens with the Ghost Kitchen Brands franchise, because Ghost Kitchens Brands does all of that.

“I feel like customers’ tastes and preferences have really changed over the pandemic,” says Graf.
While there is still demand for in-person dinning, since “nothing replaces that feeling of eating in a restaurant,” Graf believes that there will also always be a place for ordering take-out, delivery, and bringing food home.

“I think there’s room for everyone in the equation,” she says. “We’re just giving customers a lot of choices.”

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