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Chattanooga's newest eatery preparing foods for one of America's best known chefs is located in a nondescript block building next to the First Tennessee Pavilion on Chattanooga's Southside.

The new Reef kitchen, one of more than 30 on-site food preparation outlets set up by the Miami-based kitchen chain to serve food deliver services, opened a few weeks ago and began preparing meals for delivery by Wings & Things, Red Corn Taqueria and American Eclectic Burger.

Last week, the new kitchen began preparing foods for its most famous chef — Food Network chef and author Rachael Ray who is offering food delivery for 11 of her favorite dishes to promote her newest cookbook in Chattanooga and a dozen other cities.

The 15-person staff of cooks in the new Chattanooga Reef kitchen are the latest to join the "virtual restaurant" trend that is rapidly revolutionizing how Americans eat, both at home and at the restaurant. Such "ghost kitchens" are not open to public so Reef's location and appearance in the back of an old foundry site is relatively unimportant.

The food delivery app Uber Eats has teamed up with star chef Rachael Ray to create the virtual restaurant Rachael Ray to Go, an operation that will serve and deliver meals in 13 U.S. cities through the end of the year. The venture is designed, in part, to promote the new cookbook by "Rachael Ray 50: Memories and Meals from a Sweet and Savory Life cookbook (Ballantine Books; $28) by offering fans and Uber Eats customers the chance to sample her recipes delivered straight to their door.

In each city, 250 lucky Uber Eats customers will receive a copy of Rachael Ray 50 with their order.

Chattanooga is the smallest of the cities selected for the limited-edition virtual restaurant. Other cities that Reef Kitchens is using for the Rachael Ray menu include New York City, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Toronto. Mark Bourlotos is the operations support manager for Reef Technology and Reef Kitchen in Chattanooga.

Rachael Ray on the Go menu

Entrees vary from $9.95 to $13.95 and may be ordered on the Uber Eats platform

* Buffalo Pulled Chicken Chili with Smoked Blue Ranch Sauce

* Tahini Caesar Salad with Za’atar Croutons

* Sicilian Orange and Fennel Salad with Oregano

* Big Smack Cheeseburger

* Fried Chicken Sandwich

* Dozen-Spiced Fried Chicken Wings with Sweet Heat (Spicy Honey)

* Classic Bolognese with Egg Tagliatelle

* Fettuccine alla Vodka (aka You Won’t Be Single for Long Vodka Sauce)

* Jalapeno Popper Grits

* Sweet ‘n’ Spicy Pickles

* Cauliflower Mash with Roasted Garlic, Ricotta, Lemon & Thyme

Ray and Uber are trying to tap into the $26.8 billion online ordering market, which is the fastest-growing source of restaurant sales in the United States, according to David Portalatin, a food industry adviser for the NPD group. Digital orders, while still accounting for just 5% of all restaurant orders, are growing some 20% each year. Restaurant visits, meanwhile, remain mostly flat.

Ray told Bloomberg News she had explored the idea of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant before.

"Every time I looked at a property, the terms would change or the economy would change," she told Bloomberg.

Ray said if the virtual restaurant concept proves successful, she could use delivery service as a way to introduce her fans to more elaborate dishes.

"A sardine sandwich, a four-day porchetta, I could never teach that on my show, or in my magazine," Ray said. "A virtual restaurant gives me a more specific relationship to people in my audience. It's me, joining people for dinner."

Grubhub and Uber Eats say their virtual restaurant programs can help not only famous chefs but mall businesses. Both actively reach out to restaurants with suggestions for online spinoffs based on data gleaned from customer searches — extending their influence from how people get their food to what should go on the menu.

Uber Eats generated $3.39 billion in gross bookings in the second quarter of 2019, up 91% from the second quarter of 2018. The company has helped launch 4,000 such virtual restaurants worldwide, about half of them in the U.S. and Canada, according to Kristen Adamowski, head of Uber's virtual restaurants program.

Virtual restaurants have the obvious benefit of testing new concepts without taking on expensive leases or hiring more staff, said Rick Carmac, dean of restaurant management at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York.

"None of those things are minute, and none of those things easy, which is kind of what you might be led to believe," said Carmac, who has consulted for Uber Eats and said he expressed his reservations about the company's approach. "They give you the data, and then they leave."

Chick-Fil-A, The Halal Guys and Dog Haus are among top brands that have opened ghost kitchens through Kitchen United, a start-up that builds kitchen commissaries for restaurants looking to enter new markets through delivery or take-out only. Kitchen United, backed by $50 million in funding from Google Ventures and other investors, has two locations in Pasadena, California, and Chicago. It has ambitious expansion plans to open 40 more kitchens in cities across the U.S. through 2020, said CEO Jim Collins.

DoorDash staked a claim to the trend last week. The delivery company partnered with four restaurant chains — including The Halal Guys — to open a bright red shared kitchen in Redwood City, California, offering delivery or pick-up in 13 suburban Bay Area markets.

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