Investigative Report Raises Questions About Ghost Kitchens

How can consumers be sure their food is prepared in a sanitary setting?

March 02, 2023

CHICAGO—ABC7 in Chicago investigated ghost kitchens, and the report highlighted the need for more transparency when it comes to food prepared in restaurants cited for health violations

ABC7 data journalist Maggie Green matched ghost kitchens with their real restaurants by cross-referencing addresses and identified more than 300 ghost kitchens in the Chicago area. It noted that “the vast majority of the ghost kitchens are not found in the Chicago Public Health Department food inspection records, although the restaurants they are housed in are inspected.”

Consumer Investigative reporter Jason Knowles and Green ordered food from four ghost kitchens.

The channel talked with Gabino Castelan, the owner of Taqueria El Ranchito, who showed the investigative team how delivery orders for his restaurant’s many ghost kitchens come though on tablets. All of the food is made in the same kitchen. He has about 20 different ghost kitchen brands.

“Castelan's restaurant has recent, good health inspection reports, but what if your food comes from a restaurant with health violations?” the channel asks.

It cites two examples ghost kitchens housed in Chicago restaurants that have recent health violations including “fruit flies throughout the establishment” and “no soap at handwashing sink,” as well as a violation for rodent droppings, although the restaurant says they were actually rubber pellets.

Mitzi Baum, CEO of the public health organization Stop Foodborne Illness, has concerns about consumers searching for inspections or reporting health problems.

"It's a big deal because we don't know the food safety practices that are occurring in those food establishment," she said.

The Chicago Department of Public Health said it can't track ghost kitchens unless they're on record with the city, according to the channel. The city's Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department (BACP) said licensed restaurants need to be listing those 300-plus ghost names as DBAs or "doing business as." But the majority of restaurants don't do so.

"Consumers need to be aware of where they're purchasing from and whether they are a legitimate establishment because the consequences can be very severe," Baum said.

“For now, consumers may have to do extra research by matching up addresses online to report a problem or to know where their food is coming from,” the report concludes.

A 2021 survey found that consumers want more transparency when it comes to ghost kitchens. “Fifty-five percent of consumers said they believe it’s ‘dishonest for a restaurant to sell the same food under a different restaurant name.’ If a ghost kitchen is digital only, two-thirds of consumers think the kitchen should disclose their location.”

In February, Chipotle announced that its new restaurant concept, Farmesa, is being tested in a food hall that combines a ghost kitchen with a dine-in option.