Ghost kitchens gaining steam on college campuses

Spurred by the pandemic and students ordering meals online, these smaller-format operations are providing safe, healthy meal alternatives to eat-in dining.
By: | February 22, 2021
WaveBreak/Adobe

Is your college or university looking for more streamlined and safe dining options to serve students during the pandemic and beyond? One concept that has gained footing since the start of the academic year – with much smaller footprints – has been ghost kitchens.

Ghost kitchens are essentially just kitchens themselves that have no store front, no dining area, no drink stations and no true counter service or in-person ordering options. Transactions are contactless, done largely via mobile orders, and pickups can be done at locations near the kitchen site or at other locations on campus.

The advantages for institutions of higher education are many: students largely prefer ordering meals digitally and like to customize orders; colleges can utilize much smaller spaces and existing equipment to fulfill their needs; and they are much safer and less costly in terms of overhead.

Chartwells Higher Education, which serves 300 colleges and universities across the country, has been piloting the concept of ghost kitchens at several institutions since the fall and says it just makes sense, given the lean of students and the advantages for campus dining operations.

“Ghost kitchens are a great solution since it offers [students] a completely new and unique dining experience … with access to a variety of dining options and menus,” said Lisa McEuen, CEO of Chartwells Higher Education. “A benefit to the program is that many of our campuses are already well-equipped to implement ghost kitchens at a low cost. They don’t have to replace any meal concepts or shut down a location; all they need is kitchen space and they can have a ghost kitchen up and running very quickly.”

Examples of campus ghost kitchens

At Seattle University, the concept was almost a necessity given that more than 90% of students who were on campus were in remote instruction during the fall. In September, a ghost kitchen was opened to give students high-quality, healthy meals on weekends – 12 rotating entrees and 12 desserts. Chartwells said some 24,000 orders were placed in the first month.

“We decided to open our ghost kitchen in response to students and parents looking for increased meal variety and a safe alternative to on-campus dining, particularly on the weekends and for plant-based options. The feedback so far has been phenomenal,” said Terry Conaty, Resident District Manager at Seattle University. “Our team was able to get the program up and running quickly, and our costs were minimal as we simply repurposed existing kitchen space. It’s a win-win because we’re providing students with lots of new menu options without having to add additional personnel resources or compromise our social distancing guidelines.”

Chartwells has helped open similar pop-up kitchens at SUNY Buffalo State College, University of Utah, University of Texas at Dallas and San Jose State University. It is working to launch more across the country as they gain in popularity.

Other universities that have jumped on the concept with their own versions include Rider University and Duke University, who were two of the first to implement their versions in the fall. Rider partnered with Jersey Mike’s Subs and Gourmet Dining on a unique made-to-order system where students pick up their orders at a wall of clear-glass lockers that have QR codes for scanning, while Duke repurposed its catering operation to serve students through several ghost kitchens.

Colleges and universities looking to build out the concept can work with dining teams and brands to develop specific menus that cater to students. Maryville University in St. Louis created six different ghost stations to serve a variety of palettes – from barbecue to sushi to pizza to healthy offerings such as salads. Because of the small footprint, and the potential for different locations on campus, institutions also can vary their hours of operation. Some are open seven days a week or 24 hours.

While dining on campus likely won’t completely transform to a no-sit-down model in the future when the pandemic wanes, ghost kitchens probably make sense long term. According to QSR magazine, which serves the foodservice industry, even prior to the pandemic meals delivery orders had risen 150% from 2019 to 2020. Another study noted that sales from ghost kitchens alone are expected to increase 25% over each of the next five years.

If Gen Z students don’t get their food on campus from college dining establishments or ghost kitchens, the chances are good they’ll find a way to get it elsewhere. One third of them get food delivered in some way once per week.