Where is your food delivery coming from? Behind Fayetteville's ghost kitchens

Ruby Tuesday in Fayetteville looks and feels like a typical restaurant, with its leather booths and low-hanging lamps. But in the kitchen, the cooks are whipping up dishes for six other restaurants at the same time.

There is, of course, the casual American fare that patrons have come to expect from Ruby Tuesday. But there are also baby back ribs for Libby’s BBQ, steak sandwiches for Pardon My Cheesesteak, chicken carbonara for Pasta Americana, fried chicken for the Saucy Hen, grilled beef patties for Ridiculous Burger and potstickers for Wow Bao – all of which are so-called “ghost kitchens” and can only be ordered through apps like Grubhub, DoorDash and UberEats.

Ruby Tuesday isn’t alone. The restaurant is part of a growing trend where “parent restaurants” operate their own ghost kitchens or partner with other brands to offer pickup and delivery options to customers.

The Fayetteville Observer has identified 30 ghost kitchens in the city, which operate out of 10 chain restaurants and one independently owned juice bar.

Local restauranteurs have mixed opinions about working with ghost kitchens.

Wade Fowler, owner of the former Fowler's Southern Gourmet, and Nadia Minniti, owner and chef at Gusto Napoletano, told The Observer last year that they refused offers to add ghost kitchen brands to their restaurants. Both said they didn’t have the staff, space or equipment to handle such orders.

Danny Miller, owner of Heckler Brewing on Ramsey Street, said Tuesday he would be open to partnering with a ghost kitchen if the financials make sense. Preparing items similar to the restaurant’s menu of pizza, burgers and salad could boost business, he said.

“If they’re tripling our pizza volume, I’m not going to complain,” he said.

Miller said that while the ghost kitchen phenomenon is somewhat new, it’s similar to the long-running practice of white labeling food and beverage products, where a company buys a product from another company and rebrands it as its own. In the beer industry, it’s called contract brewing, and even local craft breweries do it on occasion, he said.

While ghost kitchens and white labeling are common, both are typically invisible to customers, he said.

“Most people don’t know about these arrangements,” Miller said.

How do you tell if a restaurant is a ghost kitchen?

While ghost kitchen listings on third-party apps look much like traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants, here are a few telltale signs of a ghost kitchen:

  • The listed pickup address in the third-party app is for a different brick-and-mortar restaurant.

  • Google street view of the pickup address has no signage for the restaurant in question.

  • A restaurant from which the ghost kitchen operates is listed under restaurant information or under the logo in a third-party app.

  • The restaurant does not have a presence on websites like Yelp and OpenTable.

  • Reviews on the third-party app mention that the restaurant is a ghost kitchen.

  • A search for the restaurant on the county health department inspections database yields no results.

What Fayetteville restaurants have ghost kitchens?

Here’s a list of Fayetteville ghost kitchens and their parent restaurants.

Smokey Bones declined to comment. Ruby Tuesday, Hooter's and Old Chicago did not return requests for comment.

What kind of food do Fayetteville ghost kitchens sell?

Wings, chicken tenders and burgers are the most popular items for ghost kitchens in Fayetteville, but others serve smoothie bowls, salads, wraps, bao buns, cheesesteaks and pasta.

Among them are celebrity-driven brands like MrBeast Burger, named for YouTube personality Jimmy Donaldson and cooked locally at Red Robin, and Buddy V’s Cake Slice, which hawks sweets from “Cake Boss” reality star Jimmy Valastro’s bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey, from the Fayetteville location of On The Border.

It’s not uncommon to see a handful of ghost kitchen concepts operating under the same roof. Uber Eats’ rules for ghost kitchens dictate that the menu must have five or more items, and the dishes must be at least 60% different from the parent restaurant, as well as any other ghost kitchens operating from the same location.

Do ghost kitchens get their own health sanitation score?

None of the Fayetteville ghost kitchens identified by The Fayetteville Observer have independent health inspection records, but county officials say it’s not a violation of environmental health codes.

However, any changes in operation, such as adding ghost kitchens, must be approved by the health department before implementation, Cumberland County Health Director Jennifer Green wrote in an email. Ghost kitchens are added to the existing permit, and one inspection score is issued for the establishment, she wrote.

To see the inspection score for a ghost kitchen, customers can search for the name of the parent restaurant in the county inspection database.

Food, dining and culture reporter Taylor Shook can be reached at tshook@gannett.com, on Twitter, or Facebook. Want weekly food news delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the Fayetteville Foodies newsletter.

This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Fayetteville ghost kitchens: Where your food delivery is actually from