Mobile kitchens that cater solely to food delivery services, like Uber Eats and DoorDash, sound like a great idea in theory, as dedicated delivery kitchens can push out food faster without having to worry about passing meals along to servers. But a report from The Wall Street Journal details some of the mishaps associated with one trailer-bound ghost kitchen company, Reef, which involves third-degree burns and regulatory violations.
Just this April, the WSJ reports that one Reef kitchen in Houston, Texas experienced two fiery accidents in just four months. One involved a blast that erupted from the kitchen’s propane burners — and by a stroke of luck, the cook came out unscathed.
While the cook escaped harm — she happened to open a refrigerator at the same time that shielded her from the flames — it was the second such incident at the same Houston trailer in four months. The first one injured a different cook, as flames scorched her face and gave her third-degree burns on her hands that caused skin to peel off her fingers, rendering her unable to work.
This mayhem gets a little less unsurprising when you realize that Reef actually didn’t start out in the food business. According to the WSJ, Reef (formerly ParkJockey) originally sought to transform portions of parking lots into trailer-filled parks that contain different service areas. After receiving $1.2 billion in funding from SoftBank in 2018, it bought out two parking lot management companies, becoming “the largest parking-lot network in North America.”
And although Reef is apparently a parking lot tycoon, it still has issues securing a proper parking space to plant its trailers. The WSJ found that the company has to resort to renting parking lots for over 70 percent of its kitchens.
Reef found it wasn’t able to put trailers on many of its lots, as some had enclosed garages, where propane tanks and utility hookups aren’t allowed. Others were owned by landlords who didn’t want food trucks, former employees said.
In addition, some cities classify Reef’s trailers as food trucks, meaning the company often has to tow its trailers to commissaries to fill up on water — sometimes shelling out $20,000 for towing in a single day, as noted by the WSJ. To complicate things further, the trailers aren’t made for use on the road, potentially straining propane lines and leading to leaks. Reef has also been hit with various violations, including some for operating without a permit and not towing trailers to dedicated commissaries after use, leading to the suspension of over 25 trailers since this summer.
Despite all of these glaring issues, the WSJ states that Reef’s food revenue reached $12 million in September, 600 percent higher than last year. Wendy’s, Burger King, and Popeye’s have also reportedly sealed deals with Reef, which means if you get your food delivered from some of these locations, you won’t even know it came from a trailer. According to the WSJ, Reef currently has around 350 mobile kitchens.
Reef does have some competition, however, in the form of former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens. Kalanick’s floating kitchen company also seems to be experiencing operational difficulties but of a completely different breed. It reportedly suffers from the same sort of chaos that surrounded Uber under Kalanick’s lead, including high turnover rates and an “aggressive internal culture.”
Whether you’ve never heard of ghost kitchens or you walk by one every day, this WSJ report gives you an inside look at how the business operates.