Travelers at Raleigh-Durham International Airport have a new way to grab a coffee, snack or meal in the main terminal that may be unlike anything they’ve ever encountered before.
Terminal 2’s getREEF Virtual Food Hall features food and beverages from nine local and national signature restaurants, all prepared in one kitchen. Customers browse a menu and order using an app or 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 being. human.
Everything is prepared behind a wall in Concourse C. At the front are three computer terminals for ordering next to a bank of purple-lit lockers where food appears. Travelers must then find a place to eat, most likely at their boarding gate or on the plane.
The virtual or “ghost” kitchen was built and managed by a partnership between REEF, a Florida-based company, and HUBB Kitchens, which operates a virtual kitchen in the Triangle and has more in the works.
“It’s like being at the forefront and leading the way,” HUBB founder Jason Johnson said ahead of an opening ceremony on Thursday at RDU. “I see no reason to stand in line at Starbucks anymore when you can order pre-security and get whatever you want and it’s waiting for you here in a locker.”
The virtual food hall drew curious gazes and exploration from passing passengers on Thursday. Darryl Beasley from 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 love that you can order from different places at the same time.”
The getREEF food hall features offerings from several national chains, such as Pei Wei and Rebel Wings, as well as Durham-based Beyu Caffe and American Meltdown, which have been serving grilled cheese from a truck around the Triangle for eight years before closing during the COVID -19 pandemic.
American Meltdown owner Paul Inserra said he helped train REEF’s kitchen staff to make his sandwiches and said he would check they remained up to his standards. Its RDU menu is limited to just four sandwiches, including the Chicken Buffalo Blitz and the Pesto Scarborough Fare.
“The menu we have here obviously can’t be that extensive because you have nine different concepts,” he said. “So we picked the ones that were very streamlined, easy to execute, so it was very easy to train people.”
The getREEF Virtual Food Hall opens at a time when RDU is still working to replace restaurants that closed during the pandemic. Several restaurant seats remain vacant in Concourse C, and travelers sometimes line up, especially during the morning rush, for coffee or a bite to eat.
The first kitchen of its kind in an airport
The concept of a ghost kitchen, of producing food for delivery or pickup, became more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic when restaurants closed their doors to customers. Alan Philips, Creative Director of REEF, said RDU is the first airport in the world to offer meals from different restaurants from a single virtual kitchen.
“We are incredibly excited and honored to power the next evolution of airport hospitality,” said Philips.
Philips and others who spoke on Thursday spoke about convenience for travelers and the variety of offerings from one location. Michael Landguth, president and CEO of RDU, said getREEF should help families avoid arguments over which restaurant to go to.
But there are also commercial advantages. Philips said that with shadow kitchens, airports or other landlords don’t have to risk renting to just one restaurant. If a brand is not selling well, it can be replaced without shutting down the entire establishment.
Then there is the staff. Without employees to take orders or clean tables, ghost kitchens are more streamlined.
“This unique model reduces the need for hospitality staff,” Landguth said. “Which is an added benefit, especially with all the challenges facing not only RDU, but companies across the country in terms of labor shortages.”