Food from virtual restaurant Hot Lips

The ‘ghost restaurant’ trend is slowly establishing itself overseas, and now New Zealand has its own restaurant which operates entirely in the virtual realm. Hot Lips, a restaurant on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road specialising in Tennessee-style chicken and cauliflower, operates entirely on Uber Eats.

Created by Californian-born Conor and Tyler Kerlin, Hot Lips operates out of Ha! Poke, formerly the site of Rocket Kitchen. While the kitchen is mainly used for Hot Lips preparation, Ha! Poke operates primarily in the second kitchen behind the store counter.

“We had been following some trends in the States with the virtual kitchens, and, owning around 40 restaurants already we know that the cost of leases is just going up and up and up,” said Kerlin. “Even staffing and everything – the cost of labour – it makes it really difficult to make a dollar.”

Operating solely through UberEats means that they bypassed the volatile Auckland real estate scene, the process of hiring wait staff and saved on advertising.

Restaurant Association CEO Marisa Bidois said that the launch was an exciting development, and predicted that more would appear around the country as a response to high rent and high wages.

“These virtual restaurants have really taken off, especially say, in California, Chicago and a few other places around the States. A number of different businesses may be sharing a space in those cases to produce the virtual restaurants.”

Canada is a hotbed for virtual restaurants. UberEats estimates around 50 ghost kitchens around the country. George Kottas owns 15 restaurants in and around Toronto, but hardly any of them ever have any customers walk through the doors.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams not having a store presence would work. Now I have 15 stores open,” said Kottas, who owns restaurants which serve Mexican, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Greek food, among others.

Kottas stumbled across the ‘ghost’ concept by accident, after he forgot to put a closing time on his restaurant’s UberEats profile. Forty orders were submitted after the restaurant had closed.

“A lightbulb went off instantly,” he said. “Within a week or so I started getting my staff to stay from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Within two or three weeks, I had staff staying until midnight and within a month, I went 24 hours.

“I am just about to launch in Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa. My goal is to have a store every four-kilometres across Canada.”