Over the past few years, the ghost kitchen has erupted on the culinary scene as an alternative type of restaurant operation. There are different formats, but common themes include no dining-room service; they exist only on delivery apps or websites; and they might either be a satellite outlet for a bricks-and-mortar restaurant or an independent restaurant that has only ever existed on the app. Kitchen-only restaurants have been one of the few areas of the restaurant industry to expand throughout the pandemic, with a recent report by EuroMonitor International suggesting kitchen-only restaurants will annually account for a $1.5-trillion (USD) share of the European restaurant sector by 2030.
This presents questions and opportunities for Canadian culinary schools, many of which include a pop-up or permanent restaurant facility in order to give students a taste of working in a restaurant. Typically, these are fine-dining, full-service affairs, offering students the opportunity to practice skills in the front- and back-of-house. The importance of these opportunities really cannot be underestimated; “live” service is sure to stay with culinary schools for centuries to come.
There is, however, another series of questions that has haunted culinary schools for decades: what does it mean to introduce students to current foodservice technologies? Which current technologies should we teach as educators? What happens when graduates arrive in the industry and the particular technologies we taught are not in-use? These are complex issues. Certainly, familiarity with, for example, RATIONAL ovens are one important technology to teach students, but what are others? How do we make cohesive, semester-long or multi-week courses out of these technologies?
The dual issues of shifting operational trends in the foodservice industry and unanswered questions regarding
technologies in culinary curricula might actually come together. The move toward ghost kitchens unifies many student realities: social media, apps, cell phones, online accounts, digital imagery, brand ethos, and design. Customers of ghost kitchens buy into a conjured reality, decidedly and purposefully created to unite an idea of a restaurant with the reality of what arrives.
Entering into this space is new for culinary schools. We have a duty to teach dining-room service and work-integrated-learning necessarily requires in-person guests, so apps have occupied an uncertain place in culinary curricula for some time now. Adding apps to existing culinary-school restaurants might not be feasible in that cost margins and menus might already be engineered for in-person service, and may not withstand the additional costs or time-delay of working in
a delivery environment.
During February 2021, my own institution moved its restaurant online. Normally, Assiniboine Community College (ACC) is famous for its 19-year-old full-service, fine-dining Great Grey Owl Restaurant. In light of the pandemic, we wanted to use all of our lab facilities to spread out and allow students to cook in a restaurant environment, but we also wanted students to be safe and distanced from the public in order to meet and exceed public-health guidelines. We explained the situation to the delivery app Feastify, and they agreed to temporarily host our restaurant.
Feastify’s support of the initiative led us to consider the future of how an app could be integrated into curriculum. Fine-dining menus don’t easily lend themselves to delivery, but menus designed from the ground up for apps do. Collaborative capstone projects are an area where apps are useful, since students develop different ideas each year. Rather than replacing existing bricks-and-mortar restaurants or dining-room service at culinary schools, apps allow a new, additional opportunity for students working in groups to understand the pressures on restaurateurs that currently operate on apps, and also reflect on how to design a successful restaurant model that is engineered to be profitable and in-demand when it goes live. Since it’s a ghost kitchen, students also experience design and communicating a brand through imagery, menu cohesiveness and through social-media platforms.
What does it mean to integrate technology in Canadian culinary curricula in 2021? It means many things, to be sure, but one slice of the pie will undoubtedly be kitchen-only restaurants. Apps are not the last word in the future of foodservice, but they are an important piece of the economic forecast. It doesn’t mean we should abandon in-person service opportunities. Instead, we might need to find new space in curricula to incorporate new live approaches that prepare graduates for shifting trends in virtual foodservice, alongside the spaces that we have already carved out for traditional service formats. In adapting to this, we are prompting graduates to strategize about start-up costs associated with opening a restaurant, and are also equipping them with approaches to rent-sharing or space-sharing that can help realize business-ownership ambitions.
Who knows — we might have even witnessed the end of cell-phone use being banned during class.
BY DR. RYAN WHIBBS