Airport combats staffing challenges with new ‘virtual food hall’ concept

July 30, 2022
6 min read
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Inside Terminal 2 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) in North Carolina, glowing, blue lockers illuminate one of the concourse walls, occasionally changing to other neon colors. It’s a feature your eyes can’t miss as you make your way to the gate, and it’s one you may someday find at an airport near you. It’s also a feature some think could revolutionize airport dining and circumvent staffing challenges.

The concept, which opened earlier this month, is being referred to as a “ghost kitchen” or a “mobile food hall” at the airport.

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Get Reef Virtual Food Hall inside Terminal 2 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) in North Carolina. (Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

It’s a first-of-its-kind design, the vendor behind the setup tells TPG, which functions by placing a handful of restaurants inside a single kitchen, operated by a single set of workers who prepare orders, then deliver them to a locker.

(Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

“We came across this idea and thought it would be a great fit, and said, 'Hey, let’s try it,'” RDU's media relations director, Stephanie Hawco, told TPG as we talked with her in front of Get Reef Virtual Food Hall.

Get Reef sits along the concourse of Terminal 2 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU). (Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

As a resident of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where RDU sits, the term "food hall" instantly caught my eye when I saw Get Reef under construction in July. This region is rich with food halls that combine local restaurants, breweries, coffee shops and the like under one roof. I frequent one such location for lunch in downtown Durham, about 15 minutes from the airport.

A popular brick-and-mortar location I frequent is the Durham Food Hall, which is 15 minutes from the airport in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

What makes this airport setup different, though, is that there’s not limited human-to-human interaction; there’s none.

It all starts when you place an order at one of the touchscreens along the wall next to Get Reef’s lockers.

(Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

You can also scan a QR code to access a menu and place the order on your phone.

(Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

Depending on the time of day, you’ll have your choice of up to nine different vendors ranging from national chains to local businesses.

Related: Detroit’s new personalized flight information board is straight out of a sci-fi novel

Using the touchscreen, I placed an order for a cup of coffee from Beyu, a popular local coffee shop.

(Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

Once I submitted the order, I got a text on my phone from my "virtual waiter" letting me know I could text back with any questions. I also received a link I could use to pay.

(Screenshot of iMessage thread)

After entering my credit card information on my phone, I formally submitted the order. Then I started the stopwatch on my phone to see how long it would take.

Exactly two minutes went by before I got another message: The order was complete and ready for pickup.

(iPhone screenshot)

The text message directed me to Locker #1 and provided me with two options: walk up to the lockers and scan a QR code to get my order or punch in a code on a screen to unlock the door.

(Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

As soon as I punched in the code, a door swung open and there was my coffee.

(Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

Alan Phillips, chief creative officer of Reef, says the concept is a first of its kind at a U.S. airport. He believes the concept is most notable for its efficiency.

“There’s definitely less staff required due to the efficiency of the product and the use of technology,” Philips said. “It is more efficient from a labor perspective than an average restaurant.”

That’s important at a time when airport restaurants, bars and retailers have faced continued staffing shortages even as travel has rebounded. While you’ve probably noticed improvement as you’ve navigated airports this summer compared to even just a few months ago, the challenges have not entirely disappeared.

(Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

At airports across the country, staffing shortages can mean food and drink concessionaires open late, close early or stay closed, reducing customer choices and leading to backlogs at the businesses that are open.

At RDU, officials see Reef as a potential solution.

“By having this kitchen that’s shared among nine different concepts, it really cuts down on the amount of labor they need, so we’re really looking at this as something that’s not only convenient for the customer but something that’s very helpful for the businesses as well,” Hawco said.

(Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

While Reef chose RDU as its first airport terminal with the concept, Phillips anticipates you’ll eventually see similar "virtual food halls" in other concourses across the country, citing interest from airports in other cities.

Later this summer, in addition to having pickup available from a locker, Get Reef plans to start food delivery to each gate, which is a concept other airports have rolled out, including in New York and at airports in the Washington, D.C. area.

Featured image by (Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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