Your Next Meal at RDU Could Come From the Airport's First Virtual Food Hall

Sept. 17, 2021

Sep. 17—MORRISVILLE — Travelers at Raleigh-Durham International Airport will soon be ordering and picking up breakfast, lunch and dinner in the main terminal without ever interacting with a human being.

RDU plans to turn a former restaurant space into a virtual or ghost kitchen that will prepare meals from several local and national brand-name eateries. Customers will order using an app or at a kiosk in Terminal 2, then use a QR code to open a locker when the food is ready.

The move is meant to increase dining options that have dwindled during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the restaurants that have reopened as air travel has returned are operating for limited hours, because they're having trouble finding enough workers, said Tyler Maheu, RDU's director of commercial management.

"Concessionaires are working hard to hire employees, but job competition in the local economy and wage pressure are slowing their progress," Maheu told RDU's governing board, the Airport Authority, last month.

'Ghost kitchen'

The ghost kitchen helps by eliminating workers who take orders, deliver food and clean tables, said David Freedman, the airport's chief revenue officer.

"The virtual or ghost kitchen model requires less overall staffing, since there is no front-of-the-house staff needed," Freedman said at the Authority's meeting Thursday, where the project was approved. "This helps to create a bit more operating margin and allows the virtual food hall team to pay a premium wage to attract and retain staff."

Starting wages for kitchen workers will range from $20 to $23 an hour, Freedman said.

The ghost kitchen will be built and run by a partnership between REEF, the largest virtual kitchen operator in North America, and Jason Johnson, founder of H.U.B.B. Kitchens, which operates one virtual kitchen in the Triangle and has others in the works.

"We feel like this virtual food hall opportunity will be a game-changer and blaze a trail of offering something new to airport travelers," Johnson said Thursday.

The lineup for the virtual food hall is not set, though Airport Authority members were shown a list of potential restaurants that included national chains such as Dunkin donuts and Nathan's Famous hot dogs. One local eatery on the list was Chirba Chirba, the bright yellow dumpling truck seen throughout the Triangle.

"We do represent all the national brands," REEF's president, Michael Beacham, told the board. "But the only way we create the ecosystem that we're trying to establish is to have all of the local players in the neighborhood and in each community be a part of it as well."

Using the app, customers will be able to order before they get to the terminal, either from the parking lot or before they board their flight to RDU, Beacham said. The partnership will eventually develop a seating area for diners, but it may not be ready when the virtual food hall opens.

That opening date also remains unsettled. The kitchen will be in the site of the former California Pizza Kitchen, in Concourse C of Terminal 2, behind a wall of lockers that can keep food heated or cooled as needed.

Taxis coming back to the airport

Taxi service is returning to RDU. The Airport Authority hired Taxi Taxi to have cars on hand when passengers exit the terminals. The previous taxi vendor quit offering service when passenger traffic plunged during the pandemic.

RDU also set new, higher taxi rates that it says are consistent with airports in similar markets and will help ensure drivers make a decent living. After an initial fee of $3, passengers will pay $2.49 per mile, both 50 cents higher than the previous rates.

There will also be a minimum fare of $15, which would affect passengers going less than about 4.5 miles. The average taxi trip from RDU in 2019 was 13 miles, Maheu said.

The new taxi service is expected to begin next week.

Airport Authority members said they welcomed the return of cabs.

"Many of us have gotten questions and expressions of concern from folks throughout the community about the lack of ground transportation services," said Ellis Hankins, who represents Wake County on the board. "I'm glad that we are on the way to helping to resolve this problem."


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