While many concepts scrambled at the beginning of the pandemic to develop or bolster off-premises operations, ghost kitchens were perfectly poised to handle COVID-19. Designed for ultimate efficiency, the ghost kitchen model was created with off-premises dining at its foundation, which means that now, over a year after the pandemic began, ghost kitchens continue to thrive.
“A ghost kitchen is set up specifically for delivery; it does not have a front of house,” said Brian Howenstein, COO of ClusterTruck, an eight-unit delivery-only restaurant based in Indianapolis, Indiana. “Ghost kitchens often exist in places that are not traditional—a little bit off the beaten path or within another restaurant and don’t require front-of-house staff or servers.”
Serving up a variety of street food-inspired dishes, ClusterTruck uses a vertically integrated model that places the concept itself in charge of every aspect of operations, from order placement to food prep to curbside delivery and pickup. ClusterTruck was custom built for in-house delivery, and was uniquely positioned to take on the pandemic’s increased demand for off-premises. Furthermore, as labor tightens across the industry, ClusterTruck’s kitchens—completely automated by the brand’s proprietary software—streamline labor.
While ClusterTruck continues to offer in-house delivery only, customers can also visit select locations to pick up their own food. The brand has selected smart food lockers designed by Apex Order Pickup Solutions to keep food fresh and safe from tampering or pickup confusion. Automated for smooth, contactless delivery, customers simply scan a code and grab their food from an Apex locker. While the product is effective in a variety of concepts, it’s particularly suited for off-premises-only concepts like ClusterTruck.
“Estimates show that when you build out a restaurant, the front-of-house costs can be anywhere between 40 and 60 percent of budget,” says Apex chief growth officer Mike Rizzo. “So when you remove that cost, as ghost kitchens do, it allows you to invest in technology that will enable your concept to operate more efficiently against 100-percent off-premises orders. That’s the purpose of our food lockers—optimizing operations by expediting that transfer from kitchen to driver or customer.”
Automated lockers reduce labor by streamlining the order handoff process, but also provide a reliable, quick pickup experience. The customer or driver simply unlocks the correct compartment by scanning a code on their mobile device. This scan-and-take process takes about 10 seconds and eliminates order mix-ups and long wait times. The average dwell time of an order in the locker is six minutes; meaning each compartment can handle around 10 orders per hour.
Plus, the ApexIQ software provides data on order fulfillment and pickup times, allowing operators to spot opportunities for improving their make processes. Howenstein says ClusterTruck integrated ApexIQ software with its own in-house software to take full advantage of the efficiencies in a seamless order pickup process. He considers the resulting data on how and when orders are picked up to be one of the lockers’ key benefits.
With four units in the pipeline to open in early 2022, ClusterTruck (and other ghost kitchens) are positioned to thrive in the near future as off-premises demand continues to grow and labor remains tight. And with Apex’s automated food lockers, these concepts can achieve an even larger degree of efficiency in an industry that demands effective, streamlined operations now more than ever.
“Many operators were in sort of triage mode trying to get through COVID, but ClusterTruck and other ghost kitchens definitely had an advantage and a head start,” Rizzo says. “They’re innovators in this space with a business model that’s very replicable. We’re excited about partnering with these kitchens; in my opinion, those concepts that are going to be most successful in the future are the ones that really embrace technology.”
To learn more about how locker pickup can streamline your restaurant’s operations, visit the Apex Order Pickup Solutions website.
By Rachel Pittman