Shared Kitchen? Cloud Kitchen? Ghost Kitchen? Commissary Kitchen? Black Box Kitchen? Incubator Kitchen?
Unfortunately, these terms are often used interchangeably throughout the food industry. Not only in news articles but in government regulation, there are a litany of confusing and inconsistent definitions.
Fortunately, they have one commonality: They refer to a food production space which includes some shared infrastructure across multiple businesses.
Some of these terms have a more specific definition or were created to reflect a particular context. The sections below are an attempt to sort this out so we can find consistency in this sector:
At it's broadest, this entails multiple food businesses operating in a single location which makes use of some shared infrastructure. This term encompasses all of the other terms described in the article and I favor it as the overarching industry descriptor for these business models.
Other equivalent terms include: shared-use kitchen, licensed commercial kitchen (LCK) and commissary kitchen. However, the term commissary kitchen or simply commissary may also refer to a large food processing space operated by a single tenant. For this reason, I prefer not to use this term to describe shared processing spaces.
This refers to a shared kitchen specifically designed for early-stage food businesses where the site management takes an active role in growing the tenant businesses. Adopting the term incubator from the tech industry, the term Incubator Kitchen implies that the management supports the entrepreneurs to refine their idea and their business model. This may include taking an equity stake in the fledgling businesses but not necessarily.
Incubator Kitchen ≠ Shared Kitchen
Incubator Kitchen is often mistakenly used interchangeably with shared kitchen, especially when the majority of tenants in a shared kitchen are early-stage businesses. However, this does not alone make the business an “incubator kitchen” and the use of this term is misleading when the site management’s offering does not actually “incubate” these businesses in any meaningful way.
There’s a second reason for this term’s popularity: “incubator” is a buzzy term from the tech-sector that people associate with rocket ship growth trajectories, venture capital, and million dollar buyouts. In other words, it’s good marketing.
Here’s an easy way to differentiate the two: the goal of an incubator kitchen is to develop and grow the tenant businesses operating in the space, not maximize occupancy. If the operator is measuring success through occupancy, they probably aren’t an incubator.
Ghost Kitchens, Dark Kitchens, Black Box Kitchens & Cloud Kitchens
For simplicity, I’ll use the term ghost kitchen throughout this section.
These terms all refer to the same thing: a food processing facility which has no dine-in retail component. Typically, all of the food produced in a ghost kitchen is delivered to the customer, often via a food delivery service such as Seamless, Grub Hub, or Deliveroo.
A ghost kitchen is not necessarily a shared kitchen — a single delivery-only food production space would still be a ghost-kitchen but not a shared kitchen. However, these terms overwhelmingly imply a cluster of ghost kitchens in a single location. And when those tenants make use of common infrastructure (such as refrigeration, dishwashing, or cooking equipment), then they would fall into the category of “shared kitchen".
Regardless of whether they fall under the “shared kitchen” umbrella, multi-unit ghost kitchens tend to be focused on delivery food service with restaurants making up the bulk of their users. The equipment and layouts of these kitchens generally supports this type of user although a food business not requiring a walk-in retail component (such as a small-scale manufacturer) could also operate out of this space.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Cloud Kitchens is also the name a of a prominent ghost-kitchen provided started by uber founder Travis Kalanick.
The Bottom Line
The shared kitchen industry is still in its infancy and the terminology continues to formulate. If you subscribe to a different definition than the ones provided above, that’s fine. However, it’s important to acknowledge that there is currently a lack of consensus on naming conventions and that while terms may be tossed around interchangeably, they can have a specific connotation.