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UberEats is fueling a 'ghost' restaurant trend in the Tampa Bay area

Caroline Bond looks through mobile orders on one of the five tablets behind the register of Ichiban, the sushi restaurant she owns near USF. She relies on Uber Eats for about 20 percent of their business. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Times]
Caroline Bond looks through mobile orders on one of the five tablets behind the register of Ichiban, the sushi restaurant she owns near USF. She relies on Uber Eats for about 20 percent of their business. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Times]
Published Aug. 16

TAMPA — Caroline Bond used her shoulder to balance a chunky cordless phone against her ear, her hands moving freely among the five glowing tablets rigged behind the restaurant's checkout counter.

It was a command center of iPads, so the restaurant owner could manage the slew of mobile orders during the weekday lunch rush at Ichiban Japanese Cuisine and Sushi Bar. Bond was on the phone with an Uber Eats courier, rattling off an address for an order of ramen soup.

A few months ago, ramen wasn't a leading feature on Bond's menu. Now? It is the focus of its own menu — and its own virtual restaurant. Bond runs Ramen Depot from the Ichiban kitchen. It has a virtual sister, too, called Poke Depot.

On Uber's app, Bond's sushi place and the two depots show up as three distinct restaurants. In reality, the meals are prepared by the same cooks. The new online menus and branding has helped Bond's business, which relies on delivery for about 20 percent of its sales.

"As a matter of fact," said Juan Pablo Restrepo, the head of Uber Eats top cities division, "Ramen Depot is one of top VRs in the U.S."

"VR" — virtual restaurant — cloud kitchen, ghost kitchen, dark kitchen — they're all Silicon Valley phrases to describe the same burgeoning segment of food service: restaurants that principally exist online.

Restrepo said Tampa Bay has about 50 virtual restaurants on the UberEats app now, and that number is growing. Uber Eats is guiding restaurant owners to use their existing ingredient inventory to spin off different brands to help them move more meals out the door.

"How do we help existing restaurants expand without actually getting a lot of capital investments?" he posed. "By bringing our data and our knowledge."

Bond's foray into virtual restaurants didn't begin until Uber Eats made the pitch. Restrepo said based on the data collected from customers, an Uber Eats team noticed the high number of users in Tampa near the University of South Florida searching for ramen, poke bowls and Asian food.

They saw Bond already was using most the ingredients needed for ramen and poke, and that Ichiban was serving a large volume of orders while earning high reviews. Bond decided to take on the experiment.

Neither mobile delivery nor adding on a virtual restaurant is going to be any small business' lottery ticket — but it can help a restaurant that is already running its in-house business efficiently, according to Mark Hamrick, an economic analyst with Bankrate.com.

"There's too much capacity in the restaurant space and you risk a fairly high churn rate," Harmick said.

The places to eat exceed the demand, which can mean a new restaurants burn out fast while they try to balance attracting customers and thin margins.

"With the competition accelerating for customer's dining dollars, whether it be inside or out of their home, this has become and increasingly competitive space," he said, referring to the industry at large.

RELATED COVERAGE: Tampa Bay's top 10 most delivered dishes

Mobile order apps have become an equalizer in some ways, too. Bond has owned the restaurant for seven years and said the added insurance and liabilities kept her, and the previous owner, from hiring their own delivery staff. She said Uber's 30 percent cut doesn't compare to the costs she'd have to endure to get the same delivery reach.

At this point, mobile delivery is necessary just to stay relevant. Even if an Uber Eats user doesn't choose your restaurant, they're still being exposed to the brand while flicking through options.

Since takeout has taken off Bond has noticed her regular dining sales dip around 5 percent, while her delivery orders grow.

"My customers tell me," she said, "they say they don't come in as much because they're ordering my food on their phones."

The added Uber Eats menus are a way to test out items before she adds them to the dine-in menu, where she is making most of her profits.

Mostly, Poke Depot and Ramen Depot help items stand out in a way they hadn't before on the app. It's a marketing tactic.

RELATED COVERAGE: Boss Bitch Pizza launches in Tampa with mobile order-only cauliflower crust pies

Someone craving soup is more likely to gravitate to the ramen-focused eatery than a sushi restaurant that has ramen listed among dozens of specialty rolls. Restrepo said in some markets, a virtual restaurant name has been adopted as a new brick-and-mortar name because of its success on the app.

Boss Bitch Pizza, which delivers in Tampa via Uber Eats, promotes that it doesn't have a brick-and-mortar location as a point of intrigue and mystery in its marketing.

Bond helped her parents run a restaurant when she was a little girl in Taiwan. She immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s and soon started working in food service. She laughed to herself thinking how different the family eatery was from the one she runs today.

Then again, she said, the restaurant she has today doesn't operate much like it did even 10 years ago.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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