Everything you need to know about this business model


At some point during the pandemic, there’s a good chance many of us will be spending a few minutes at restaurants firing up Uber Eats or Grubhub and swiping like Tinder for our stomachs. It’s also likely that at least some of the dining options are unknown, and a Google search won’t turn up addresses or phone numbers for any places in San Antonio.

Welcome to virtual restaurants.

Virtual restaurants, often called ghost kitchens, have been a financial boon to the food service industry since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. But they are not always easy to understand. They come in many shapes and sizes, and we’re here to answer all your questions about the random burrito or pizza shop on the screen that will leave you scratching your head.

What exactly is a ghost kitchen?

At their core, ghost kitchens are restaurants that offer online ordering only. Pizza Hut, where you can eat in or order a pie online for delivery, is not a ghost kitchen. But it was Wow Bao who recently made his San Antonio debut.

Related: A year after a Texas restaurant closed due to Covid, Ghost Kitchens is back to fill the remaining spots.

Wow Bao is a Chicago-based brand that partners with established restaurants to create steamed buns, dumplings, and teriyaki bowls that are available only through online ordering. You can’t wait to walk into the dining room of the partner restaurant and order from the Wow Bao menu. Wow Bao’s requirements for partnership agreements include owning a licensed commercial kitchen with existing equipment, among other qualifications.

Wiz Khalifa ghost kitchen restaurant Hotbox by Wiz is no longer available in San Antonio.

Wiz Khalifa ghost kitchen restaurant Hotbox by Wiz is no longer available in San Antonio.

Paul Stephens/Staff file photo

Do all ghost kitchens operate out of existing restaurants?

Many ghost kitchens use a partnership model with existing restaurants, but that’s not the only way they can do business. Some operators prefer to rent stand-alone commercial kitchens in industrial or less expensive parts of town that have never been home to a restaurant. That commissary kitchens can be food trucks, cookhouses, or simply a bare-bones box that meets the needs of self-dressing operators.

One thing you won’t find in those places are tables, chairs, public restrooms, a smiling staff ready to take your order, or any other customer comfort of a traditional restaurant.

So why would someone start a virtual restaurant?

The main reason is based on money. The initial investment is much lower without the need to hire greeters, runners and waiters, or expensive dining room decorations, furniture and tableware. It also means saving big dollars on rent, which can be much lower in windowless warehouses or by renting unused kitchen space from existing restaurants.

Virtual restaurants can provide an opportunity for established businesses to try new concepts without diluting their core identity. For example, in the wake of the pandemic, national chain Wingstop has launched a ghost kitchen concept, Thighstop, specializing in chicken thighs, to offer customers a different option as chicken wings become harder to find in 2021, although this side business has been discontinued. TGI Friday’s has taken a similar route with a Dead Kitchen operation focusing on chicken wings called Conviction Chicken, though the online-only menu is not currently available in San Antonio.

Chef Adrian Cruz  In 2001, they featured a chicken sandwich made from Miss Mazy's bread, which was made by Ghost Kitchens SA.  The deal is slated to close in 2022.

Chef Adrian Cruz In 2001, they featured a chicken sandwich made from Miss Mazy’s bread, which was made by Ghost Kitchens SA. The deal is slated to close in 2022.

Billy Calzada/Staff Photographer File photo

Are ghost kitchens here to stay?

Well, it’s hard to say.

In a 2022 survey of independent restaurants commissioned by GrubHub and conducted by consulting firm Technomic, industry publication RestaurantDive.com found that 41 percent of independent restaurants were operating a virtual restaurant concept. Of those survey respondents, 68 percent said their virtual restaurants are a permanent addition to their business, and 46 percent plan to launch new concepts in the next year.

But that fervent enthusiasm seems to be waning. Just one year later, the same publication, “cracks have recently appeared in the popular model. Low grades, operational problems and approval problems have closed the room, which has made many experts doubt the effectiveness of the model.”

Ghost Kitchens SA Outlaw Burger, Mother Clucker, Firebelly Wings and HotBox by Wiz are now available for delivery in San Antonio through Ghost Kitchens SA.

In San Antonio, Ghost Kitchens SA, a virtual restaurant business, opened in January 2021. Led by chef and owner Adrian Cruz, the business has completely branched out from the model, operating at least six different restaurant concepts from one kitchen. In March of the following year, the operation closed and all of the various restaurant products disappeared from the San Antonio market.

What ghost kitchen menus are available in San Antonio?

Most of the virtual restaurant competitors that found strong business here in 2021 and 2022 have disappeared, just like the audience. The remaining brands include Wow Bao, MrBeast Burger, Tender Shack, Virtual Life Pizza, Crack’t, The Meltdown, Bed & Breakfast Burrito Co., Bake N Cake LLC and It’s Just Wings among others.

pstephen@express-news.net | Twitter: @pjbites | Instagram: @pjstephen


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