Have you recently ordered food on a delivery app from "American Eclectic Burger," "Fork & Ladle," or "Red Corn Taqueria"? Because these are all ghost restaurants operating out of so-called "ghost kitchens" in SF, and no one except those who work in them can say who's cooking your food or in what manner it's being prepared.
Broke-Ass Stuart just published a mini-exposé by SFist contributor Joe Kukura that documents the scene at a warehouse space at 60 Morris Street in SoMa that's being operated by Travis Kalanick's newest endeavor, CloudKitchens. It is just one of the ghost kitchens — though one of seemingly many — now operating around the city, and photos show the logistics through which food is being collected by delivery drivers, who arrive at a steady click in the alley all night long. Because people are ordering in a lot these days. And no one seems to care if they're ordering from a real restaurant or a faux one that is basically just pictures on an app.
In the case of 60 Morris Street, Kukura observed a bank of numbered lockers, and drivers simply pull up, enter a lobby with some sort of iPad interface, and then apparently figure out which locker their delivery bag is in. The Wall Street Journal visited 60 Morris Street just after it opened back in November, describing it thusly:
There was no sign except a small neon knife and fork and the words “Pick Up” above the door, and pieces of paper taped to the front telling drivers not to park on the street, a directive most appeared to ignore. Another sign read, “Bathrooms for drivers inside!!!”... Inside, couriers queued for food at a counter. The screen above them listed orders that had come in via Grubhub, DoorDash and Postmates.
American Eclectic Burger is one of CloudKitchens' imaginary cloud restaurants. The website for the business lists no address and no locations, but if you go on UberEats or Seamless, you're going to think that the place has outposts all over town. On UberEats today there are 10 listed locations of American Eclectic Burger, one of which, for instance, is 535 Green Street — the location of something called Buon Gusto Gallery. Many of the locations are in SoMa, and they may all be calculated to make sure that users see delivery times they like — much of how this whole business operates remains a mystery, and Kalanick may want to keep it that way.
Though they may all just be delivery hubs of some kind — the functional equivalent of those mailman-only lock-boxes on corners — where food from a central kitchen gets dropped off and then picked up by area drivers before heading to its final destination. As Wired recently reported following the debacle with Kin Khao and Grubhub/Seamless, there are all kinds of these operations working in the shadows of SF these days. In the case of "Happy Khao Thai," the ghost restaurant that Grubhub's system mistook for Michelin-starred Kin Khao, food gets picked up at one such hub behind "the maw of a demolished theater" on Mission Street where all you'll see is "a pair of portable toilets and a trailer." That food is actually being cooked at a warehouse kitchen owned by CloudKitchens' competitor Reef Technology, according to the Chronicle, in the Potrero Business Center at 1760 Cesar Chavez, underneath the junction of 101 and 28o.
Per the Chron, "Reef’s rapid push to serve the San Francisco delivery market is fueled by a large investment from Japan’s SoftBank... which reportedly vaulted Reef into the ranks of unicorns, or privately held companies with a value of more than $1 billion."
As more and more of these stories come out with pictures of the trailers and warehouses where food is getting prepared and handed off, it remains to be seen if consumers will be turned off. CloudKitchens and Reef contend that they are simply helping meet a customer demand that traditional restaurants can't keep up with — but is that true? Or are they cutting into the revenues of restaurants in the latest act of "disruption" in an industry that's actually well loved.
This isn't like the notoriously horrible and insufficient taxi situation in San Francisco that created a void and drove the creation of Uber and Lyft. This is a city of over 4,000 restaurants, some of which are struggling and in dire need of more delivery customers.
If you care about this, or if you prefer your food to come from non-ghost kitchens, maybe stop and check the next time you're about to click the order button on a delivery and see if your chosen restaurant is really a restaurant.