Public Seminar: How Taxpayers are Picking Up the Bill for the Destruction of Local Restaurants

November 30, 2020 Independent Business & Entrepreneurship

This past summer, Kroger, one of the nation’s largest grocery store chains, received a 15-year, 75 percent sales tax exemption for setting up two new data centers in Ohio. This is the definition of unnecessary. Kroger is not exactly poverty struck – it accrued profits of more than $2 billion last year. Moreover, subsidizing data centers is for suckers. Companies need to build that infrastructure, and they don’t create all that many positions. Municipalities and state governments that subsidize data centers sometimes literally pay upwards of seven figures per job.

Then it got worse: Kroger is using its data to move into what’s known as the “ghost kitchen” business, something that is a terrible development for local independent restaurants. So, Ohio taxpayers are helping a massive supermarket chain put other businesses out of business, including their favorite corner eatery. That Ohio is doing this in a year when small restaurant proprietors are under all but existential threat adds insult to injury.

Ghost kitchens are as spooky as they sound. Big corporations like gig companies, supermarkets, and fast food chains use the data they collect through their various lines of business to create delivery-only food operations. But here’s the catch: They often hide and disguise the fact that they aren’t actual restaurants. They give them homey sounding names, like Seaside or Lorenzo’s, and build out web pages that make them appear to be places you could drop in on. In fact, they are randomly located in warehouses and other industrial spaces, and backed by big investors and corporations whose participation is often hidden by a web of shell companies.

The poster children for this issue are the big delivery app companies — UberEats, GrubHub, and Doordash — which use the data they collect doing deliveries for restaurants, and which they don’t subsequently share with those restaurants, to see what sort of items sell best and when. Then, much like Amazon weaponizes the data it collects from small businesses that sell on its platform to create its own products, the delivery apps use the data to create their own, delivery-only food outlets, with the aim of cutting real restaurants out of the business entirely. (Amazon, of course, won’t miss this opportunity either: It has invested in a delivery and ghost kitchen company called Deliveroo.)

This model of operating a platform and then also competing on it should just be illegal, even though it’s widespread. Whether it’s Amazon using info gained from its third-party sellers to steal products, Google using data gleaned from its advertising technology to outbid publishers, or delivery apps cutting real restaurants out of the restaurant business, the issue is the same: The corporation that runs the infrastructure has an anticompetitive advantage over all of the other participants. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, succinctly puts it, “You can be an umpire, or you can be a player—but you can’t be both.”