The first time DoorDash delivery driver Rey Reyes arrived to pick up an order from a restaurant named Fuku in South Boston, he was surprised to find a large trailer in the back of a parking lot.
He was waiting on a spicy fried chicken sandwich with a side of waffle fries, but the trailer was also serving up boneless wings from Wings & Things, vegetable dumplings from Wow Bao, or grilled cheese from MrBeast Burger.
All from the same commercial kitchen inside the trailer, at the same address, and with no actual restaurant in sight.
The trailer, which takes up about half of the 12 spots in the tiny lot at 21 A St., is a “ghost kitchen,” one of several in the area run by Reef Technology, a company that manages parking lots and has expanded into the last-mile delivery business. For the past three years, it has been trying to convince lot owners they can make more money by using the spaces for something other than parking cars.
The trailers, which it dubs “vessels,” serve as a central dispatch for delivering food to customers who order through apps such as Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Grubhub. A single trailer, such as the one in South Boston, could prepare food for more than half a dozen restaurants, which license menu items to Reef, similar to a franchise model. Reef handles preparation and packaging and typically pays a fee to lot owners to park its trailers.
Most of the brands Reef sells exist only online through ghost kitchens, such as Man vs. Fries, Sticky Wings, and Rebel Wings. But place an order for a Nathan’s Famous hot dog on Uber Eats from a Boston neighborhood, and it may also come from a Reef trailer, even though the chain has five brick-and-mortar locations in Massachusetts.
The food is delivered in branded packaging with no sign of its origin.
“Customers would have no idea this is where their food comes from,” Reyes said.
Reef, backed by Japanese investment firm SoftBank, raised $1 billion last year to expand across the country, and it has since opened three ghost kitchens in the Boston area, including the one in South Boston. The other two are located side-by-side in an industrial stretch of Everett’s Commercial Triangle, near where a developer recently won a key approval to build a luxury residential building.
Jonathan Medina, a line cook in one of the Everett kitchens, said most delivery drivers have become used to traveling to the desolate area of the city to pick up orders, although initially it was disorienting.
“A few come here for the first time and are confused, asking, ‘Is this Nathan’s? Is this Rebel Wings?’” he said.
Medina said it takes some explaining to help people understand what is going on.
“I usually use brands people know and say it’s like having McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s in the same truck,” he said.
Companies such as Miami-based Reef have become more attractive to restaurateurs since the onset of the pandemic, allowing them to reach a wider customer base without having to open new locations or hire more workers.
Major chains are all-in on the concept, too. In August, Wendy’s signed a deal with Reef to open 700 ghost kitchens in the United States, Britain, and Canada over the next five years, citing the need to expand beyond traditional restaurant formats, especially in cities. Some of the kitchens in Boston are selling food from DJ Khaled’s “Another Wing,” a virtual brand he launched last Thursday with Reef. It will be featured in more than 150 ghost kitchens globally, about half of Reef’s current kitchen footprint.
Ron Jewett, Reef’s manager in Everett, said business is booming, with each kitchen preparing up to 300 or 400 orders on weekend nights. He said Reef is planning to add a third trailer to the site that will offer packaged goods, such as ice cream, chips, and candy.
Although it sells food from more than a dozen restaurants in Massachusetts, Reef only has 30 employees. It plans to hire another 40 to meet demand, said Mason Harrison, a Reef spokesman.
Jewett expects Reef to add seven more trailers in the Boston area and also move into a two-story building near Suffolk University that would house a delivery service for food, convenience items, and groceries.
Formerly known as ParkJockey, Reef was founded in 2013 as a parking lot operator. Through partnerships and acquisitions, it grew to be the largest parking lot company in North America, with 5,000 properties under management, including about 200 in Massachusetts, according to Harrison.
But not all Reef-managed lots are destined to become more than a place to leave a vehicle. Reef owns Republic Parking, for example, which manages about 100 MBTA parking facilities. A spokesman for the T, Joe Pesaturo, said the agency has no plans to use the lots to host Reef kitchens, and under the existing contract, Reef can’t put modular structures on MBTA property.
As Reef expands, it’s facing pushback from city governments over how it should be regulated. Business Insider reported that the company’s kitchens have been shut down in at least six cities for flouting city and health codes.
Harrison said Reef tries to work with cities to figure out how its model can best fit into existing permitting framework. Even though Reef sells food, it doesn’t technically operate like food trucks or restaurants, which are required to meet certain standards that don’t always apply exactly to ghost kitchens, he said.
In Boston, Reef obtained food truck permits that allow it to prepare food for delivery only. (A City of Boston spokesperson confirmed that Reef has passed its health inspections.)
“Regulations and compliance are an ongoing conversation across all cities because we’re creating something new,” Harrison said in an e-mail.
Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said Reef’s food truck permits, which prohibit on-premise sales, make the concept less of a threat to nearby restaurants.
“As long as they have to play by the same rules ... as long as those [rules] are enforced and kept in check, I think it will be OK,” he said. “Food trucks didn’t result in a massive closures of restaurants.”
In South Boston, Reef signed a six-month lease with local parking lot owner Stanhope Garage. Ken Aiken, office manager of family-owned Stanhope, said monthly revenue from the South Boston lot has tripled compared with pre-pandemic times because of the Reef lease, and the companies are discussing whether the food operation will take over the entire lot, he said.
“We wouldn’t get that from parked cars,” Aiken said.
Meanwhile, the Everett property will soon switch hands as part of a redevelopment project, so the future of the Reef trailers there is uncertain. A spokesperson for the City of Everett did not respond to a request for comment on Reef’s permitting or leasing status.
Reef’s delivery hubs don’t come without a side of traffic congestion. Delivery drivers clog Spring Street in Everett on weekends, Medina said. In South Boston, Reef’s kitchen sits across the street from apartment and condominium buildings.
Yossi Sheffi, director of MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, said that beyond having valid permits and passing inspections, companies such as Reef need to be good neighbors.
“It works until there is a lawsuit, and then the questions are not about whether they have a permit, but rather if they are a nuisance to the neighborhood,” he said.
Joe Rogan, vice president of sales and marketing at catering company Rita’s Hospitality Group in Everett, which is located down the street from Reef, said Reef is operating in the “wild, wild west” of the post-pandemic restaurant world. Rogan said he wouldn’t order from a trailer-based virtual restaurant, but he realizes he’s probably not Reef’s target demographic.
“A lot of younger people who are mobile app-friendly, they see this as convenient because it gets delivered; they don’t have to go out,” he said. “The technology is getting people to order.”