The French fries on the floor were the first clue. The inspector, from the Lexington health department, knew the Italian restaurant didn’t serve them. Where had they come from, she asked?
That’s when she learned the kitchen was preparing meals for several “virtual restaurants,” online, delivery-only operations with food that is very different from what the kitchen normally serves.
In Leominster, the health director recently made a similar discovery. After some online sleuthing, he learned that a local pizza restaurant, part of a national chain, had been preparing food for a virtual Chinese restaurant, while a Brazilian steakhouse was cooking up concoctions for a virtual operation specializing in macaroni and cheese dishes.
“It’s like smoke and mirrors or a shell game,” said Joanne Belanger, Lexington’s health director. “We license this particular restaurant, but on the side they are running six or seven other things.”
Many consumers, who browse and order food online through third-party companies like Grubhub, probably don’t think too much about where their wings and burgers come from.
But the question gnaws at some health inspectors amid an explosive rise nationally in online-only food operations.
No one knows how many such operations are running in Massachusetts or nationwide, as there is no central entity that tracks them. But agencies from local health departments to the Food and Drug Administration are concerned and struggling to catch up. At the same time, restaurant industry leaders and some regulators say these virtual food hubs are safe and pose no more risk than brick-and-mortar operations.
A recent survey by the National Restaurant Association found about 40 percent of restaurant operators said they expected more such virtual businesses to open this year, in an industry already estimated to be a $43 billion market.
“Our regulations haven’t kept pace with how technology has changed,” said Timothy McDonald, Needham’s health director. “I think we are just trying to figure out how to regulate this in a safe and responsible manner.”
Inspectors’ main concern is how these restaurants will impact their ability to track food-borne illness. Such cases are already notoriously difficult to trace, because the process relies on people’s memories of what and where they ate. The growth of virtual restaurants is likely to make that process even more complex, inspectors say.
“If we think a restaurant is not preparing burgers, and there is a food-borne illness involving burgers, and we think, ‘It can’t possibly come from [that restaurant] because they don’t prepare burgers’,” that’s a problem, McDonald said.
Inspectors are also concerned about an increased potential for so-called cross-contamination events, where consumers are unwittingly exposed to ingredients they’re allergic to. That, inspectors say, can happen if kitchen staff, used to preparing food from the menu at a brick-and-mortar restaurant, may not realize they need a different storage and preparation process for all the virtual operations going on at the same time.
“I don’t want to take business away from a place, but I also want to make sure there is no cross-contamination,” said Jeffrey Stephens, Leominster’s health director.
Virtual restaurants, sometimes called ghost kitchens, only exist online and can take many forms. Typically, a brick-and-mortar restaurant will launch several virtual restaurants, with different names and menus, and prepare the food using its existing kitchen. These virtual brands only appear online and are visible to customers who order on takeout and delivery apps.
With little guidance from the state health department, which does not track virtual food operations, the Massachusetts Health Officers Association recently asked its Academic Public Health Corps, comprised of public health students and experts, to research how widespread the phenomenon is in Massachusetts, how various communities are inspecting and licensing them, and what, if any, harm they may cause.
They hope to have some answers later this summer.
The National Association of County and City Health Officials said in regions where they’ve heard from local health departments, these virtual restaurants are required to get separate permits and inspections — if the central food preparation location can be found.
“But the difficulty lies in identifying the operations,” the association said in a statement.
The Food and Drug Administration held a three-day summit last fall, “Ensuring the Safety of Foods Ordered Online and Delivered Directly to Consumers,” which included safety concerns about virtual restaurants.
The agency said in a statement that it is still studying all the different versions of online food operations, the potential safety risks, and “what the regulatory community along with the FDA can do to address the gaps.”
But industry leaders say virtual restaurants are safe and don’t need separate regulations or permits.
“Restaurants have run daily specials forever that are not on the menu, so how is that any different?” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.
“If I am running a second menu out of Bobs Burgers, say I am now running Ann’s Chicken Sandwiches, it’s no different. It’s all food,” he said.
Robert Earl, chief executive of Earl Enterprises, which owns Bertucci’s, Planet Hollywood, and several other chain restaurants, as well as a string of virtual operations, said adding new food items to a menu, or even a new virtual restaurant, shouldn’t impact a health inspection which, he said, focuses on whether food is being stored and refrigerated properly, whether the place is clean, and the operation has the right equipment.
“If [an inspector] would like to have prior knowledge that there are virtual brands, I have no problem with that,” Earl said. “All they have to do when they walk through the door … is ask that. No one is hiding it.”
Health inspectors in Boston have been aware of virtual restaurants for several years, said Lisa Timberlake, spokeswoman for the city’s Inspectional Services Department. She said that if the parent brick-and-mortar business is properly permitted and uses the same employees to prepare virtual restaurant orders, the department sees no cause for concern.
“As long as it’s coming from the same restaurant, whatever they want to operate online as, it’s still going back to that core business,” she said.
Timberlake said the health department has reviewed less than five virtual restaurants over the past few years and found no health code violations. Boston doesn’t have plans to track or regulate online restaurant brands, she said.
“All of these new, innovative ideas and business models are popping up all the time,” Timberlake said. “We want to work with folks.”
The Chelmsford health department last year discovered the local Bertucci’s was running six virtual restaurants and, after discussions with the company and the local establishment, added the names of the virtual operations to Bertucci’s permit and treats them as one business.
“It has worked out fine,” said Donna Greenwood, a Chelmsford inspector. “We have not had any concerns, or issues, or any complaints.”
But Needham’s health department recently encountered a significant problem: a Thai restaurant the department closed this spring for repeated health violations opened a virtual Thai restaurant under a new name.
“The concept of restaurants getting around suspension through online technology is concerning,” said McDonald, from Needham.
In Lexington, where the inspector recently stumbled on the company’s virtual operations after finding French fries on the floor and other problems with cleanliness, the health department sent a notice to Bertucci’s to cease the virtual portion of its local business until the town could review and issue permits.
“Everyone is going to look at this through their own lens and training,” said Belanger, Lexington’s health director. “If there is a way this can be done, great, the state should show us and make it safe for the consumer.”
Kay Lazar can be reached at email@example.com Follow her @GlobeKayLazar. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.