Ghosted

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Hot chicken restaurants are all the rage on food delivery apps. How many of them actually exist offline?
(Illustration by Darius Johari)

Long before the pandemic, I waited almost two hours to get a hot chicken sandwich from the much-hyped Howlin’ Ray’s in Chinatown. I understood the fanfare — the sandwich was fantastic — but I knew I’d never return. Even if I caught wind of a shorter wait from the Howlin’ Ray’s Twitter feed, I couldn’t justify idling for an entire afternoon just for 20 minutes of blissful eating. When Howlin’ Ray’s finally started offering delivery on Postmates in May of last year, I rejoiced, ordered a sandwich, and tipped my driver 30 percent when it was delivered within 30 minutes.

Howlin’ Ray’s wasn’t the only restaurant that turned to third-party takeout and delivery platforms in the midst of the pandemic. When the L.A. County health department ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms to curb the spread of Covid-19, it forced many restaurants across Los Angeles to seek out other sources of business — even if that meant significantly cutting into their own bottom line: For every order, apps like Postmates and DoorDash charge a transaction fee that can be as high as 20% of the total sale. Still, what may have been a less-than-ideal situation for restaurants ended up being a delicious windfall for me, personally, and other hot chicken lovers throughout the city. 

Thanks to restaurants’ sudden reliance on delivery apps, I no longer had to stand in a long line winding down the sidewalk of Dave’s Hot Chicken in Koreatown, or plunge into South Los Angeles to pick up Hotville Chicken (the owner, Kim Prince, comes from a hot chicken dynasty: Her father is the owner of the legendary Nashville hot chicken joint, Prince’s). Instead, I could fulfill my destiny as a hot chicken connoisseur from the comfort of my apartment, tasting every spot I saw blogged about: Birdies (pair it with a doughnut); Tennessee Hot Chicken (the perfect level of heat); the Red Chickz (don’t skip the pickles); Stark’s (generous with their signature sauce!) — and even the ones I’d mysteriously never heard of: Main Chick Hot Chicken, Lily Mae’s Hot Chicken, Chicken Tender Heaven,

I soon became overwhelmed by the selection of hot chicken brands on the delivery apps. I found it implausible that so many restaurants, offering nearly identical menus, could all thrive in such an over-saturated market. Plus, new hot chicken places seemed to be opening every day. I started Googling their addresses, trying to figure out which ones Yelp deemed the best, and I discovered something else: many of the “restaurants” aren’t actually restaurants — as in, they don’t have a brick-and-mortar storefront with table service and a wait staff. Instead, many of these delivery spots operate in what’s known as a “ghost kitchen,” a massive, shared industrial kitchen where they rent space alongside dozens of other companies that only exist on digital platforms. 


For some restaurateurs, the ghost kitchen is a quick, cost-efficient way to launch a new concept. By saving money on real estate, staff, and atmosphere, chefs can experiment and perfect their menus before committing to a full-service experience — if that’s even their goal.

While ghost kitchens have been around since at least 2015, the burgeoning business model exploded during the pandemic, with deep pocketed venture capitalists funnelling money into tech-adjacent companies like Cloudkitchens, founded by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick; Kitchen United; and the bluntly-titled Ghost Kitchen Brands. Though I’d like to imagine ghost kitchens are only operated by ambitious, independent chefs who lovingly craft their dream menus, the landscape is dominated by the tech companies, which are likely more interested in inflating profits on cheap, simple, greasy foods. 

Delivery apps require their vendors to list their addresses, and through my frenzied Googling, I found a few different ghost kitchens within a five-mile delivery radius, each of which operates dozens, if not hundreds, of restaurants. CloudKitchens’ massive West Adams location sells hot chicken from a combination of small businesses like Jesse Boy, which got its start at farmers’ markets, and purely virtual brands like Lily Mae’s Hot Chicken and Chicken Tender Heaven, whose only proof of existence that I could find is its menus on Grubhub and Doordash. 

CloudKitchens also operates another space in Koreatown, but unlike the West Adams space, this one is much harder to identify. When I typed its address into Google, it brought up a few food courts listed under multiple, confusingly similar names — including Melrose Food Co. and West & Mel Food Co. Delivery. I only learned about this food court’s ties to CloudKitchens by finding an article written by Matt Newberg for Hngry, but I had certainly ordered from them before; They are the home to the surprisingly tasty virtual brand Bad Mutha Clucka and a delivery-only location of my shamefully favorite fast food chain, Chick-Fil-A. 

There’s another ghost kitchen food court called Colony, a space housing several self-professed “smart kitchens.” I discovered it while running errands on the other side of the 405, using Google Maps to guide me to a lunch spot in unfamiliar territory. When I picked up a sandwich to-go from Main Chick Hot Chicken, there was a long line of delivery drivers waiting by a window in the back. But I entered through the front, into a small, sparse dining area, where dozens of menus were accessible through a singular iPad. Though I stuck to my hot chicken, I was tempted by the novelty of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Kitchen, where everything is “Goop Certified Clean” — not an actual certification, but in Goop speak, “no processed sugars, processed foods, gluten, soy, dairy, peanuts, or preservatives” — and Trejo’s Tacos, named for an arguably more beloved L.A. icon, Danny Trejo.


Much has been written about ghost kitchens — their sudden dominance on delivery apps, their cost efficiency, whether they’re actually a benefit to mom and pop businesses — but what’s happening in Los Angeles, and other cities, has more layers to it. In addition to the ghost kitchen, there are restaurants, both corporate and independent, with multiple profiles on a delivery app, listing their business under multiple names to attract different types of customers; “virtual brands” that you’ll never find on foot. 

One of the independent spots is Ziggy’s Hot Chicken, which operates out of one of my favorite buildings in Los Angeles: L.A. Fresh Poultry, a carniceria on the edge of Westlake, with a large white fiberglass chicken perched atop its roof. With its trendy but imperfect photography, Ziggy’s Hot Chicken appears to be owned by the same family that owns L.A. Fresh Poultry. I sleuthed this by carefully examining their charmingly amateur website, which shows their rotisserie chickens basking in flames behind a fresh Nashville-style sandwich. Plus, both businesses repeat the promise of hormone-free, halal chicken. (Curiously, Ziggy’s has been removed from Grubhub, and Yelpers have reported it as permanently closed; Time will tell whether it will deliver hot chicken again.)

Restaurants like L.A. Fresh Poultry/Ziggy’s take on multiple identities — sometimes with different menu offerings, but all the same ingredients. That also seems to be the case with a Koreatown pizzeria, Tu PanYou Pizza, which sells its chicken menu items under a separate delivery name, Lord of the Wings; dessert under the moniker Churro Junkie; and, pizza — despite already being in the name of its brick-and-mortar shop — under at least two separate, online-only virtual brands: 18 Wheeler Pizza and OMG Pizza. (Over the course of writing this article, 18 Wheeler Pizza mysteriously disappeared, but has since been replaced with the equally nonexistent brand, Loaded Pizza Co.)

When I called Tu PanYou Pizza to inquire about Loaded Pizza Co., the employee I spoke with couldn’t say whether the restaurant is listed under a host of names, nor could she tell me why 18 Wheeler Pizza simply vanished. But I imagine this strategy is the delivery app version of search engine optimization, where websites embed a wide, and seemingly random, set of keywords into their code so they have a better chance of appearing at the top of search results. I also think there’s some psychology at play for the potential customer. By using separate names to suggest a restaurant specializes in just one thing, consumers might think the restaurant has perfected their cuisine.

And finally, in a hybrid approach to the brick-and-mortar vs. ghost kitchen, restaurants with extra kitchen capacity are also teaming up with virtual brands. In downtown L.A., the cavernous Los Angeles Biergarten, where I’ve attended many heated trivia nights, is also cooking up grub for MrBeast Burger, a virtual brand co-created by YouTube star and philanthropist Jimmy Donaldson (MrBeast himself!) and Virtual Dining Concepts, a company that designs menus based on a kitchen’s pre-established size, facilities, and ingredients. (VDC bills itself as “the leader in celebrity restaurant brands.”)

According to its website, VDC gets a commission from its fulfillment partner’s orders, and by collaborating with restaurants, they can instantly launch hundreds of franchises on delivery apps across the nation. (I contacted VDC to ask if they could explain their business model further, but they could not be reached for comment.) It’s a mutually beneficial, if parasitic relationship: In theory, L.A. Biergarten boosts its revenue without having to change its established identity; and VDC, which also teams up with celebrities like Pauly D and Mariah Carey, makes money off its novelty concepts with little overhead.

Other food ventures that exist only in other restaurants’ kitchens include Future Foods, whose portfolio of over 200 brands includes Killer Wings and Macology — the secretive company is coyly affiliated with CloudKitchens — and Nextbites, whose hot chicken brand, Miss Mazy’s Amazin’ Chicken, never quite looked appealing enough for me to order from it. 


While regulatory agencies have accused ghost kitchens of skirting health codes, I think the call to trust virtual brands or ghost kitchen cuisine relies on your personal skepticism and sleuthing. Theoretically, they follow health codes just like any other restaurant, but delivery apps don’t require a business to list their letter grade from the health department, or their menu’s nutrition facts. If you’re a health-conscious eater, or if you want to know if your hot chicken was hormone-free before becoming a sandwich, you’ll have a difficult time finding these facts. When I tried calling some of the virtual brands to learn more about their food nobody picked up the phone. Sometimes there wasn’t even a ring or a dial tone, just eerie static, as if some supernatural force was blocking my calls — a real ghost haunting the ghost kitchen.

Even though I’ve made peace with the culinary unknown, virtual brands can still break my trust. Earlier this year, CBS Sacramento reported that customers got upset when they realized their Chicken Sammy’s order was actually a repackaged sandwich from Red Robin. (Ok, that is kind of scandalous!) Instead of ending the practice of re-listing a restaurant under an alternate name, DoorDash decided to add a disclosure to some restaurants: “This is a virtual brand.” GrubHub, on the other hand, actually encourages restaurateurs to set up a virtual spin-off directly through its website

And when brands don’t disclose their virtual-only status, there are still some tell-tale signs, gleaned from my months of endlessly scrolling through delivery apps: Their photography often features bright, high-contrast images on solid backgrounds, floating hands gripping a saucy sandwich without squishing its bun, and fashionable dinnerware that I might find in the MoMA Design Store. The trendy images — which suspiciously follow the color schemes of every hot Silicon Valley start-up — make the food appear much more appetizing than it may actually be, but good production design goes a long way.  

Real, arguably more trustworthy establishments usually suffer from not having this digital savvy graphic design. Their pastas are often captured in harsh lighting, the food a bit off-center, the congealed sauces noticeable due to the hours the food has been left out for a photoshoot.

Comparing the mom & pop to the virtual brand reminds me of the contrast between photos I see of used clothing on Poshmark as opposed to product photography on Zara’s website. On a hanger, the clothes look misshapen and wrinkled. The amateur seller doesn’t have the right equipment to make the clothes appear flashy, but her mirror selfie is the most reassuring evidence that the dress will look great on me. At Zara, the brand hires an entire team to make their fast fashion (or, in this case, fast food) look great, but when I put it on, it won’t remotely drape across my body the way it does in photos.

It takes a lot of energy to sift through the multilayered brands of hot chicken in Los Angeles. Exhausted and hungry, I pull up DoorDash and am faced with another round of new restaurants, invented with just a few clicks — Sam’s Crispy Chicken, Thick Chick, Los Pollos Hermanos (from Breaking Bad?!)

I return to my first love, Howlin’ Ray’s. They don’t call it comeback sauce for nothing.

🔥 The Best Hot Chicken in L.A.🔥

🍗 Howlin’ Rays

727 N Broadway #128, Chinatown

🍗 Hotville Chicken

4070 Marlton Ave., Baldwin Hills / Crenshaw

🍗 Tennessee Hot Chicken (THC)

5133 York Blvd., Highland Park

🍗 Stark’s Hot Chicken

207 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown

🍗 Bad Mutha Clucka

Ghost kitchen, multiple L.A. locations

🍗 Tokyo Hot Chicken

237 S Brand Blvd., Glendale (inside Bourbon Steak)

🍗 Sam’s Crispy Chicken

Ghost kitchen, multiple locations

🍗 Main Chick Hot Chicken

20 E. Union St., Pasadena; The Colony in Sawtelle