Food preparation at the Joey Restaurants ghost kitchen.

Customer Success: Ghost Kitchen Fuels Spirit of Innovation

A Vancouver restaurant’s pandemic pivot delivers valuable operational insights.

When 2020 forced businesses into survival mode, many restaurants reeled. For a Vancouver, British Columbia upscale-casual operator, launching a ghost kitchen was the ticket to expanding horizons and continuing its culinary creativity.

With five Joey Restaurants locations in Vancouver, 17 others throughout Canada, and six in the United States, growth was always part of the plan. Then the pandemic took hold. Suddenly, a business big on dining room atmosphere faced empty tables.

The business was hit hard by layoffs and called on salaried staff to run every aspect of the restaurant as takeout-driven. Managers quickly realized big action was needed.

“Without the front of house, there’s so much unused space,” explains Joey Test Kitchen Coordinator Arthur Montgomery. “Every dusty table and chair, they’re all just dollar signs.”

The idea of starting a ghost kitchen was floated in mid-April as a way to condense the operation and get more value out of the creative talents of team members. Within a month, Joey was assembling delivery-only meals out of an unused kitchen at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey. It was a long way from the nearest restaurant location in Coquitlam, and an even longer way from a dine-in experience for customers.

A hybrid prep/production model

The restaurant’s calling card has always been customer comfort and handcrafted, globally inspired foods you can’t get anywhere else. The ghost kitchen challenged Joey to create a dining experience that could be delivered via DoorDash.

“The main motivating factor was to continue to be able to innovate,” Montgomery says. “We just didn’t want to be stagnant or flat-footed in the same spot and say, ‘Well, we had no options so we didn’t try anything.’ ”

The university didn’t have enough space or all of the equipment to meet food needs, so an already-trained team stayed behind at the Joey Coquitlam location’s kitchen. They sliced vegetables, assembled salads, prepared sauces and placed them in portion bags and transport containers. A laid-off staffer who owned a truck ran prepped food from the restaurant to the ghost kitchen.

This allowed Joey to use prepped ingredients to quickly finish dishes like its barbecue salmon rice bowl, sushi, blackened chicken and even individually baked apple pies for eat-at-home customers.  

The importance of packaging

With a hub for food creation in place, the focus quickly became packaging. With an eye toward anticipating customer expectations, the first goal was making sure foods stayed at temperature during transit. Another goal was to be eco-friendly, with recyclable or compostable containers and serving ware.

They tested packaging from numerous providers to compare menu items side-by-side, including a blindfold test to determine which one resulted in the best packaged burger. Knowing other operators faced the same challenges, Joey decided to go a step further in creating innovative home delivery.

“Because we are not in the dining room extending ourselves to guests, we looked for ways to deliver that warmth and care,” Montgomery explained. “We decided on things like packing up mini doughnuts and cookies with each order and making sure we have the right labels and stickers for branding.”

Fitting into a new market

Branding played a role in making a good first impression, Montgomery points out. Because the area surrounding the ghost kitchen was more rural, Joey was reaching a new audience. At first there was some skepticism.

“A lot of businesses and restaurants in the area were struggling, and people worried about the big guy coming in,” he says. “We realized our name wasn’t going to take us to the finish line, and we’d have to earn our place in the community.”

Joey did that by dropping food off at soccer games. They visited firefighters, the police station and front-line workers at the hospital. “We didn’t want to take and not give back. I think that’s true with any restaurant and any ghost kitchen--we needed to build relationships with our  couriers, the people who supported us, and even the university. If we had to get into the kitchen early, we needed a good relationship.” 

Lessons learned through experience

When the ghost kitchen was launched in April, no one had any idea whether it would work or how long it would be necessary. A few weeks? Several months? A year?

The pandemic dragged on, but the ghost kitchen operation stopped in August as the university planned to reopen to students and needed its kitchen space. By then, restaurants were open with limited seating. Lessons learned about packaging and presentation paid dividends. 

“By doing a ghost kitchen with solely packaged food, it forced us to look at our takeout program in a new light,” Montgomery notes. “We realized we had 100 percent say in the experience and making it consistent and unique to us.” 

Would Joey do a ghost kitchen again? Absolutely, but the decision would be more deliberate, taking location, demographics and sales volume into consideration.

“We look back on it as a success. We were profitable, we generated money and we retained our people--a base of about 20 people were able to keep paying and fully employed all summer,” Montgomery says. “A lot of those partners are still with us and just at different locations, and they used the ghost kitchen as a pedestal for promotion.”