Inside Inspire Brands’ Ghost Kitchen and Innovation Center

By Kate Katz |  February 3, 2022

You’ve probably patronized at least one of the restaurant chains that Atlanta-based Inspire Brands owns — including Arby’s, Sonic, Dunkin’, Jimmy John’s, and Buffalo Wild Wings. The holding company was born in 2018, when Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings merged. And it’s now the second biggest restaurant company in the US, with 32,000 restaurants that bring in over $27 billion in system sales. (Only McDonald’s is larger.)

In November 2021, Inspire Brands opened the first “ghost kitchen” run by a multi-brand restaurant company. Located in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood, Inspire’s Alliance Kitchen fulfills online orders from several of Inspire’s major brands via brand-specific apps or third-party delivery services.

Vans Nelson, VP of Restaurant Operations, Innovation and Profitability, Inspire Brands

As restaurants are forced to transform their business to meet the spike in online ordering, and as supply chain and labor shortages continue to impact the economy, ghost kitchens — which don’t serve walk-in patrons — can offer restaurants a more cost efficient (and labor efficient) way to serve customers than traditional locations. The company says the Alliance Kitchen model can reduce labor costs by 54 percent, compared to operating five stand-alone restaurants.

In a recent interview, InnoLead spoke with Vans Nelson, VP of Restaurant Operations, Innovation, and Profitability for Inspire Brands. 

Nelson works across the Inspire Brands’ portfolio, including operational efficiency, kitchen layout, equipment innovation and design, and “pretty much anything that touches the restaurant,” he explains.

Creating Alliance Kitchen

Alliance Kitchen was designed to keep up with an industry undergoing intense change. According to the American Journal of Transportation, the United States online food delivery market jumped to $28.4 billion in 2021, a nearly 30 percent increase in two years.

“Our approach to [Alliance Kitchen] was how can we take our brands, and design a kitchen in a way that led to greater efficiency and greater operational execution in a way that our competitors don’t,” said Nelson.

The ghost kitchen delivers to all areas within the range of its delivery partners, such as GrubHub and UberEats. The kitchen is segmented by workstation (e.g., grill, fryer, sandwich prep) instead of by brand. This consolidated space is designed to fulfill orders for multiple brands, optimized for collaboration and cross-trained employees.

Inspire Brands opened Alliance Kitchen in November 2021 in the West Midtown neighborhood of Atlanta.

Because team members receive training across multiple brands and workstations, Nelson said, they are better equipped for future job opportunities. In addition to reducing Inspire Brands’ dependency on labor by about half, this strategy helps to develop staff that can work in various different Inspire locations in the future. “For example, team members working at a Dunkin’ airport location in the morning could easily transition to staffing a Jimmy John’s location during the lunch rush,” said Nelson.

And Alliance Kitchen’s consolidated design decreases equipment costs by 45 percent versus equipment costs for five stand-alone restaurants. The kitchen also significantly reduces energy usage. For example, the HVAC tonnage, or the cooling capacity required of an air conditioner, is 71 percent less than that required for five stand-alone restaurants. 

A Culture of (Technology) Innovation

Nelson says that innovation at Inspire Brands begins in the boardroom, where executives focus on bringing existing operations into alignment with restaurant industry trends, and how to leverage their scale to invest in developing new technology and markets.

In 2020, the company opened Inspire Brands Innovation Center, a space to test restaurant design and equipment solutions before they are deployed to a real-world scenario like Alliance Kitchen, and then implemented in any of Inspire’s brands. 

Inspire Brands Innovation Center, opened in 2020, provides a space for the brands to test restaurant design and equipment solutions.

“One of the exciting things about this industry is constant change,” says Nelson, who oversees both Alliance Kitchen and Inspire Innovation Center. “It really is a culture around innovation and technology and investment in those competencies. It’s a test-and-learn environment.”

What exactly are they putting to the test? Lately, it’s technologies that streamline operations and supply intelligent automation. For example, Flippy Wings, the world’s first AI-powered robotic kitchen assistant (developed by Miso Robotics), was installed at Inspire Brands Innovation Center, and will be tested in Alliance Kitchen’s real-world cooking environment in the next few months.

Along with testing technology and equipment, the brands can evaluate and reimagine kitchen design, menu items, packaging, modes of delivery, and other concepts before rolling out on a national scale. Franchisees can also visit the innovation center to participate in “think tank sessions.”

Inspire Brands Innovation Center is a 15,000 sq. ft. creative space for testing new foodservice equipment including robotics.

The Future of Fast Food and Innovation

Future innovation for Inspire Brands may include virtual branding, or creating a brand within a parent brand that exists solely online. (Nelson says that approach is still in the exploratory stage.) Although there are no plans yet for a second Alliance Kitchen, Inspire Brands has its eye on markets with high volumes of digital orders and high real estate costs. A ghost kitchen gives the company’s brands the flexibility to operate in markets that might otherwise be unappealing because of access or cost.

For 2022, Nelson’s sole focus is finding new problems for technology to solve. “Perhaps the most significant impact on the business is how technologies can be applied to improve efficiency by improving labor productivity, eliminating waste, and improving the speed of service and accuracy,” said Nelson.

Vans Nelson’s strategies for advancing technology innovation at Inspire Brands:

  • Leveraging data to drive improvements in customer service and scalability;

  • Improving on seamless and efficient team workflows in the restaurant; and

  • Achieving synergies and scale through integration and standardization of tools and processes.