Ghost kitchens ride into college campuses on the backs of delivery bots

Universities turn to robots to address labor shortages and explore new businesses

The relatively controlled environments of university campuses have long served as ideal testing grounds for autonomous technology, and they’re proving particularly effective for sidewalk delivery robots.

In the latest move to introduce autonomous delivery to college campuses, early last week, food delivery platform Grubhub and sidewalk delivery robot startup Cartken shared plans to bring 50 food delivery robots to Ohio State University this fall. An expansion of their spring semester pilot of 15 bots, the plan is to have around 100 Cartken robots delivering around OSU by the end of the school year.

A closed, geofenced environment allows companies to test higher levels of autonomy as there are fewer edge cases and difficult scenarios, like busy intersections. And campuses typically have neatly paved sidewalks, which are perfect for the small wheels of delivery robots.

As more universities around the United States slowly become home to such robots, they’re finding that the bots are not just a neat new feature to appease hungry students or promote their willingness to welcome innovation. Universities are now relying on bots to both address labor shortages and explore new business opportunities, such as delivery-only kitchens, popularly referred to as “ghost kitchens.”

“If you think about it, almost every kitchen in today’s world is a ghost kitchen, because every restaurant is doing delivery now.” Zia Ahmed, senior director, dining services, OSU

“Universities are starting to see the opportunity to marry that concept of running multiple restaurants from a production facility and tying that to robotics. It allows them to pick a central point on campus that’s operationally or logistically beneficial, and then build a whole set of virtual restaurants that can only be delivered through robots,” Benjamin Anderson, Grubhub’s director of campus business development, told TechCrunch.

The lay of the land

Universities are no stranger to autonomous delivery robots, but startups are now steadily increasing their presence on campus sidewalks.

Grubhub is only expanding on its previous work with its new plans — the company previously worked with OSU and the University of Arizona to deploy Russian internet company Yandex’s autonomous rovers. They were popular with students, the people involved said, but Grubhub, like many Western companies fearful of the taint of war, pulled out of that partnership when Russia invaded Ukraine.

This is, however, Cartken’s first foray into university delivery. Earlier this year, the startup partnered with Mitsubishi to bring delivery to certain malls in Japan and is also working with REEF Technology to deliver from ghost kitchens in downtown Miami.

Larger rival Starship Technologies, arguably the leader in the space, has been deploying robots on campuses for years. The startup, which last raised $42 million in December, operates in 30 colleges around the U.S. and will announce more partnerships in the coming months, the company said.