9 Investigates: How restaurants use ‘ghost kitchens’ to offer online-only orders

CHARLOTTE — Food apps may be quick and convenient, but your meal might not be coming from where you think.

At the Peach Cobbler Factory in Charlotte, co-owner Vincent Montgomery prepares decadent southern treats out of a kitchen collective called South End Eats.

The new concept is part of a collection of “ghost kitchens,” or delivery-only restaurants. South End Eats has more than 20 kitchen stalls, each filled with small local businesses exclusively online -- no dining rooms. Montgomery hopes to eventually open a brick-and-mortar location, but for now, he said a ghost kitchen was an affordable way to break into the restaurant industry.

“You have to be able to make a living, and everything is going up,” Montgomery said.

There’s a shift in the industry coming out of the pandemic, where so many restaurants closed and many are still facing staffing and supply chain shortages. Along with soaring food prices, many have been forced to make changes.

“I think that changed the culture of how we do business, honestly,” Montgomery said.

South End Eats is transparent about its delivery-only model, but not all ghost kitchens operate that way. That is raising red flags with food safety experts like Adam Dietrich.

“If I’m ordering from a third-party app, and I want the food delivered, I want to know where its coming from,” Dietrich said. “With ghost kitchens, they don’t have to tell you and they also don’t have to post their score.”

Earlier this year, Channel 9 investigated the Chili’s on Sardis Road. The restaurant was running a ghost kitchen called Maggiano’s Italian Classics without approval from the health department, according to an inspection report.

It’s the same kitchen where health inspectors said they found cockroaches throughout the facility.

Customers could only order from Maggiano’s through food delivery apps.

“Nowhere on that website did it say it was coming from Chili’s and it sure didn’t say it’s coming from a Chili’s with a 73 health score,” Dietrich said.

On March 9, a spokesperson for Brinker International (which owns Chili’s) said the location got a significantly higher health rating in a reinspection by the health department. The company shared the following statement with Channel 9:

“The health of our Guests and Team Members is our top priority, and we are happy to report Chili’s Crown Point on Sardis Road received a 96.5 in our reinspection by the health department this week. We took quick, corrective action to thoroughly address all concerns and ensure we continue to score A’s on future health inspections. Some of our actions included providing additional training to our Team Members, making necessary repairs in our Heart of House, working with our chemical solutions partner EcoLab and confirming we could operate our virtual brand, Maggiano’s Italian Classics.”

But Dietrich also had questions about whether a restaurant can safely offer various menus.

“It’s easy to get behind on food safety, its easy to get behind on cleanliness,” Dietrich said.

Mecklenburg County said before approving a ghost kitchen, officials evaluate whether an establishment has the equipment, storage and preparation space to safely handle adding another menu.

After going through health department records in Mecklenburg County, Channel 9 found eight restaurants hosting 20 ghost kitchens. Chili’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Cantina 1511 all had secondary restaurant concepts online only. Buca di Beppo had eight.

We also found discrepancies in how health departments regulate them. Gaston County said it didn’t have the names of the ghost kitchens, just the restaurants where they were operating. Gaston County had ghost kitchens in:

  • Chuck E. Cheese
  • Wingstop
  • H&M Catering
  • Outback Steakhouse

“I think we are just reaching the tip of the iceberg,” Dietrich said.

He wants to see state and federal food code catch up with the new trend. He thinks restaurants should disclose where your food is coming from right on the app, along with the restaurant’s health score.

According to the state health department, “Marketing by third party delivery services or apps are not under state or federal jurisdiction, according to the current FDA Food Code, since marketing or delivery services are not considered a ‘food establishment’ and do not require permitting in North Carolina.”

(WATCH BELOW: Restaurants adjust to new normal as take-out, drive-thru only businesses)