Delivery apps sprang to ubiquity in cities like San Francisco with promises that — at last — diners craving food from a region’s most delicious or desirable restaurants could enjoy those offerings without leaving the comfort of their home or office. But as companies struggle to compete in the crowded and competitive delivery space, more and more food apps are picking up meals assembled in trailers stashed in parking lots and beneath overpasses instead of from locally-known cafes and restaurants.
The term “ghost kitchen” — a facility set up to prepare delivery-only meals — is likely familiar to most followers of food news, with ousted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s Saudi-backed chain, CloudKitchens, making headlines for its move into industrial spaces in cities including SF (60 Morris Street, for those interested). In some ghost kitchens, like DoorDash’s Redwood City operation, diners can order food from name brands like Chik-fil-A, Halal Guys, and Humphry Slocombe. In others, like Kalanick’s, the restaurants have names like MoonBowls and $5 Salad Company, both of which bill themselves as available only via delivery apps.
Another ghost kitchen company, Florida-based Reef Technology, gained mainstream attention earlier this month when a restaurant it operates called Happy Khao Thai was the victim of a so-called “glitch” in GrubHub’s automated system, somehow confusing it with Kin Khao, a Michelin-starred restaurant that most definitely is not inside a rented trailer in a San Francisco parking lot.
That’s exactly what Happy Khao Thai is, however, Wired reports. Specifically, it’s located in a Mission Street lot behind a demolished theater and next to “a pair of portable toilets.” The same is true for Reef-operated restaurants like Burger Bytes, the Chron reports — this one “a long white trailer occupying four parking spots in the back of a Financial District lot.” The same goes for Poki Poke, Wings & Things, and Fork and Ladle (just a few of the “brands” listed on Reef’s site). All these spots sound like they could be restaurants, right? But none of them are, in the traditional walk-in-and-order sense.
Instead, the Chron reports, meals ordered by unsuspecting food app customers are prepared in a kitchen inside the warehouse and storage space of the Potrero Business Center at 1760 Cesar Chavez, beneath where 101 and 280 meet. From there the food is shuttled to various rented trailers across the city, where they’re handed off to delivery drivers. That system, perhaps, helps illuminate the dense copy on Reef Technology’s site, which is laden with phrases like “[we] enable the last block delivery of products and services to more people than ever before, more efficiently than has ever been possible, due to proximity to areas where large numbers of people live and work.”
It’s tempting to wonder, however, if the majority of customers even care. Is food prepared in an industrial-zone kitchen, shuttled to a trailer, then dispatched by a gig worker (who, given how reluctant some area restaurants are to allow delivery drivers to use their restrooms, probably really need those adjacent porta-potties) less appetizing than food prepared by a chef inside a building with signage, tables, and chairs? To each their own, one supposes. Perhaps it’s enough that a food venue just feel plausible when viewed via a screen. After all, to distinguish between an established restaurant and one that, Catfish-like, has merely assembled a convincing online profile might require a bit more time and attention to the local community than many delivery app users are willing to invest.