Who's responsible for food safety in a virtual kitchen?

Misunderstandings about who handles food safety protocols in a ghost kitchen may haunt you later.

December 28
When it comes to food safety in virtual or cloud kitchens, who is responsible, the owner of the facility or the brand operating out of it? The answer: it depends.

There are seemingly as many permutations of virtual kitchens as there are types of restaurants, and state and local health codes, not to mention business regulations, have had a difficult time keeping up.

Food safety regulations also differ by state, county and locale. Georgia's 159 counties, for example, all operate under the state's food code, modeled after the 2013 FDA Model Food Code. Under Georgia's rules, operators can't share space or equipment in a ghost kitchen. They either must all have their own space, like a unit in a food court, or one operator must be in charge of all the food prepared in the kitchen, even if it's for 10 different restaurants or brands.

No matter what business model a virtual kitchen follows, ultimately food safety, or lack thereof, reflects on you, the restaurant brand operator, no matter who is “technically” responsible. Just looking at some of the more common models, however, will give you an idea of who is supposed to do what.

Pure cloud kitchen.

Kitchens that develop their own brands for delivery obviously are responsible for their own food safety. These kitchens hire their own employees, purchase their own food and equipment, and prepare meals for delivery under their own brands.

Contract virtual kitchen.

Whether you're a major chain or an independent operator looking to expand delivery sales, with this turnkey solution you simply contract with the virtual kitchen to prepare your menu items. The virtual kitchen operator hires its own employees, maintains the facility, handles purchasing, etc. You train the kitchen's employees on how you want the items prepared per your brand’s specs, and the rest is on the kitchen. Clearly, the food safety onus here is on the cloud kitchen operator, but again, it's your reputation on the line.

Ghost kitchen pods.

These operator-specific kitchens, either in brick-and-mortar buildings a la Kitchen Podular, or a portable shipping container like REEF, are inspected like individual restaurants. Who's responsible for food safety, however, depends on who's doing the cooking. Kitchen Podular, for example, hands over its pods to brand operators. Others offer a turnkey program, using its employees to turn out food for different brands, much as a traditional franchisee would.

Kitchen-only facilities

Kitchen-only facilities also are being launched by existing dine-in restaurants like Red Lobster and Sweetgreen. If you set up your own brand-centric virtual kitchen like this, you're on the hook when the health inspector comes calling. Make sure your food safety practices in the virtual facility are as strict as your own restaurant kitchens.

Shared or community kitchens

Shared or community kitchens that rent out space to multiple brands, staffed with those restaurant brands' own employees, are the most complex when it comes to food safety. Typically, a brand is responsible for its own production area, as well as the refrigerated, frozen and dry storage space assigned to it. Often, those areas are set up like lockers that can be locked at night to prevent pilferage. Common areas, such as hallways, loading dock and garbage, are the responsibility of the landlord, or ghost kitchen company that leases the space to restaurants.

“Local inspectors help to police food safety in these establishments and look for compliance with hygiene inspections both from the ghost kitchen and the operators,” says Matt Taylor, senior manager of Consulting and Technical Services, NSF, Ann Arbor, Mich. “In short, all parties are responsible for following food safety and sanitation protocols. While there could be varying standards between ghost kitchens and their operators, the ghost kitchen should provide operators with guidance and clear expectations of minimum standards they should operate to. In addition, they should monitor each operator for non-compliance.”

Spaces that are shared by more than one operation share food safety responsibility—and the outcome of inspections, which is why some jurisdictions like Georgia believe that type of arrangement is too complex to allow. If your local health department does allow it or allows you to share kitchen space in an existing dine-in restaurant—during a different daypart, or to produce a different take-out menu, for example—you need to make sure that responsibilities are clearly spelled out. Some jurisdictions may require some type of written agreement spelling out who is responsible for what. If a jurisdiction allows this, that written agreement can become similar to a contract and might even be legally binding in some respects. The restaurant will be responsible for any code violations, no matter who committed them.

Some points to remember if you're exploring the idea of utilizing or opening a ghost kitchen:
  • Prioritize food safety. Never lose focus of food safety protocols.
  • Foster a food safety culture. Arrange 3rd-party audits of your ghost kitchen operations. Incentivize crew for excellent health department inspections. Collaborate with your local health department so you know their rules and what to expect.
  • Train and educate constantly. If your employees produce food in a ghost kitchen, keep up their food safety education. If you've contracted with a ghost kitchen, make sure its employees are properly trained in all your SOPs and food safety protocols.
  • Use digital tools. Whether for training or monitoring the temperature of the kitchen's walk-ins, take advantage of ways technology can help you maximize food safety and minimize risk.
  • Monitor your leaseholder's food safety practices as well as those of any co-tenants and bring potential code violations to their attention immediately.
  • Be transparent. There are no letter grade or emojis visible in a ghost kitchen's windows (although they are public record in most jurisdictions). So, promote your ghost kitchen food safety culture on social media and in your brick-and-mortar operations.
  • Make sure food safety doesn't stop at the ghost kitchen door. Work with delivery services to make sure their drivers have basic food safety education. Use tamper-evident and insulated packaging.
  • Always read the fine print. Make sure you know who's responsible for what before you sign a lease or contract.
  • Take advantage of resources like the Association’s ServSafe program