Travelers at Raleigh-Durham International Airport have a new way to grab a coffee, a snack or a meal in the main terminal that may be unlike anything they’ve ever encountered before.
The getREEF Virtual Food Hall in Terminal 2 offers food and drinks from nine local and national brand-name eateries, all prepared in a single kitchen. Customers browse a menu and order using an app or at a kiosk, then use a QR code to open a locker when they receive a text message that their order is ready — all without interacting with a human being.
Everything is prepared behind a wall in Concourse C. Out front are three computer terminals for ordering next to a bank of purple-lit lockers where the food appears. Travelers then need to find a place to eat, most likely at their gate or on the plane.
The virtual or “ghost kitchen” was built and run by a partnership between REEF, a Florida-based company, and HUBB Kitchens, which operates one virtual kitchen in the Triangle and has others in the works.
“It’s like being on the cutting edge and blazing a trail,” Jason Johnson, HUBB’s founder, said before an opening ceremony Thursday at RDU. “I don’t see a reason to stand in the Starbucks line anymore when you can order pre-security and get everything you want and it’s waiting right here in a locker for you.”
The virtual food hall drew curious looks and some exploration from passing passengers Thursday. Darryl Beasley of Durham had just gotten off a flight from New York when he stopped at the computer terminal to see what was available. Beasley ended up ordering a turtle mocha and a bacon, egg and cheese bagel sandwich.
“I like how easy it was,” he said. “And I like that you can order from different places at one time.”
The getREEF food hall has offerings from several national chains, such as Pei Wei and Rebel Wings, as well as Durham-based Beyu Caffe and American Meltdown, which served grilled cheese from a truck around the Triangle for eight years before shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
American Meltdown’s owner, Paul Inserra, said he helped train the REEF kitchen staff in how to make his sandwiches and said he will check in to make sure they remain up to his standards. His RDU menu is limited to just four sandwiches, including the Buffalo Blitz with chicken and the Scarborough Fare with pesto.
“The menu that we have here obviously can’t be as expansive because you’ve got nine different concepts,” he said. “So we’ve picked the ones that were very streamlined, easy to execute, so that it was very easy to train people.”
The getREEF Virtual Food Hall opens at a time when RDU is still working to replace eateries that shut down during the pandemic. Several restaurant spots remain vacant in Concourse C, and travelers sometimes wait in long lines, particularly during the early morning rush, to get coffee or a bite to eat.
The first kitchen of its kind at an airport
The ghost kitchen concept, of producing food for delivery or pickup, became more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, when restaurants shut their doors to customers. Alan Philips, the chief creative officer for REEF, said RDU is the first airport in the world offering meals from different restaurants from a single virtual kitchen.
“We are incredibly excited and honored to be powering the next evolution of airport hospitality,” Philips said.
Philips and others who spoke Thursday talked about the convenience for travelers and the variety of offerings from one place. Michael Landguth, RDU’s president and CEO, said getREEF should help families avoid arguments over which restaurant to go to.
But there are also business advantages. Philips said with ghost kitchens, airports or other landlords don’t have to take a chance on leasing to a single restaurant. If one brand isn’t selling well, it can be replaced without shutting the whole place down.
Then there’s staffing. Without employees to take orders or clean tables, ghost kitchens are more streamlined.
“This unique model reduces the need for front-of-house staff,” Landguth said. “Which is an added benefit, especially with all the challenges not only RDU is facing but companies all across the country in terms of labor shortages.”
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