Walk through the streets of Manhattan these days and you are bound to see a lot of “for rent” signs taped to the windows of empty commercial spaces. In Captain Obvious fashion, Crain’s New York last week noted that Amazon is affecting a lot of mom-and-pop brick-and-mortar: revenue is down due to the online competition and rents in New York, despite tons of vacancy, remain unsustainable for many business owners.
It’s rather simple: online retailing is eating up brick and mortar and there aren’t enough Bonobos, Birchbox and Warby Parker showrooms to fill the gap. After expanding to seemingly every corner of the City, banks are in contraction mode: there are now a number of shuttered Capital One and Chase locations in the City. And restaurants? We’ve covered that in detail: forget about it. Art galleries? Mwahahahahaha.
Under the radar are the ghost restaurants that are quietly undermining the commercial real estate market and contributing to the over-supply of space. Wait, what? Ghost restaurants? Picture this: you're on billable hour 26 for the day and you're hungry. You go on Seamless and find a restaurant with glossy food-porn photos and reasonable prices. You order and 35 minutes later you're indulging in your tasty delights while questioning the meaning of life.
A week later, you've got 20 minutes free from the office and your significant other suggests going out to eat. You say, "I know a great restaurant with awesome food. Let's go." You look for an address but you can't find one. Because there isn't one. The place you ordered from has no physical presence whatsoever or, alternatively, is just a kitchen with no seating space. Now you're rubbing your belly and really having an existential crisis. WTF.
With sky-high rents and quick turnover the norm, companies like the Green Summit Group are coming up with varying and unique restaurant concepts, locating themselves online only (or, at best, securing a small commercial space with no seating), skipping the long-term onerous lease with commercial landlords, partnering with commercial kitchens, and using Seamless and Grubhub for distribution.
This model promotes improvisation. One benefit of avoiding an actual storefront is the ability to test different food concepts and pivot menus if there are lower-than-anticipated sales. Rebranding is remarkably easy: just a new name, some different food porn photos, and an update to Seamless. To the extent that one company is running different concepts - say, Middle Eastern and Greek - it can also cross-pollinate by offering the exact same menu items per "restaurant" and sharing ingredients in the kitchen. This limits the need to source new ingredients or engage in extensive food prep training for each and every concept.
It is questionable how sustainable these experiments are long-term. You can read more about some of the cons - loss of alcohol-related sales, no walk-ins, logistics complications - here. The fact is, though, that this represents yet another headwind confronting established restaurant companies. And that potentially means EVEN MORE restaurant bankruptcies in the near future.