- Reef has tripled the number of ghost-kitchen “vessels” it operates in parking lots across the US.
- But insiders say its rush to grow led to limited potable water, undercooked food, and explosions.
- Former directors and managers said benchmarks set by VC investors forced Reef to take shortcuts.
Reef Technology, the ghost-kitchen operator backed by SoftBank, is scaling fast as it works with chains like Wendy’s, TGI Fridays, and Burger King, preparing food in mobile trailers that it calls “kitchen vessels” in parking lots across the US.
In interviews with Insider, 18 former Reef cooks, managers, and area directors around the US said its ambitious growth had in some cases led to operational chaos.
Some former workers said the kitchens’ fast pace of work, driven by surges in customer orders, had at times led to food-safety concerns.
“We had a couple of problems with people giving out raw chicken,” a former cook said.
Some former employees said they routinely worked with faulty equipment and the threat of “fireballs” from stovetops as bosses pushed them to get food orders out to customers in cities like Houston and San Francisco.
“Our team was deadly afraid to work every day because they thought their face will get burned off,” a former market director in Texas said.
Some cooks and area managers complained about a lack of water for cleaning their hands or dishes. One said their water source for washing dishes would freeze in the winter. Another said that when they ran out of water they used Dasani bottled water meant for customers.
Most of the former employees who spoke with Insider left Reef within the past two years, including two who departed within the past two months. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, though their identities are known to Insider.
Reef declined to comment on any specific cases. “The allegations being made against Reef from unnamed sources are misleading and nothing more than an attempt to damage the company’s reputation,” the company said in an email.
“As we’ve stated previously, in all cases, we hold ourselves to the highest standards of food-handling and safety training in all our kitchens. The health and safety of our employees and customers are Reef’s top priority. As always, if any issues affecting food safety or employee safety are uncovered, we take them seriously and work to address them immediately.”
Some trailers sent out raw chicken and served sushi against health codes, former employees said
Reef has had multiple run-ins with health inspectors in New York City, Houston, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore, according to inspection reports and health-agency statements obtained by Insider. Recently, the health department in Austin, Texas, told Insider that two food trailers were “suspended for operating past their permit expiration date.”
Reef’s trailers are now in compliance with local regulations in many cities. And health inspection violations in the restaurant industry are not uncommon. But some former Reef employees said the ghost-kitchen startup ignored safety and flouted city rules.
Area directors and vessel captains described a hustle culture that encouraged keeping trailers open at all costs — even if that meant operating without a permit or taking more orders than cooks could handle.
A former operations director in Texas said his bosses were often “pushing” employees to go faster.
“But you have limited space. So no matter how busy you get, it takes time to cook this food. You can’t forcefully cook food faster,” he said.
In some cases, under mounting pressure to meet demand, employees sent raw chicken out to customers, three former workers said.
“Fried chicken going out raw, going out not cooked all the way, was a problem,” a former area manager in California told Insider.
A former food-trailer manager from New York said some days were so busy that cooks would shove as many as 60 chicken wings into fryer baskets designed to hold a maximum of 30, resulting in uneven frying.
The former manager told Insider that cooks sometimes bagged and sent out chicken before they could check the temperature to see if it was fully cooked, a standard safety protocol.
He recalled that on one night, a representative for Uber Eats called to complain. “They sent us pictures,” the former manager said. “And the chicken was raw — like, clearly pink and red on the inside.”
A former culinary director with knowledge of US and Canada operations said he was frequently alerted about Yelp reviews complaining of raw chicken for David Chang’s Fuku menu and Reef’s virtual chicken brand Wings & Things.
Cristobal Martinez, a former vessel captain in Houston, said he felt that some cooks were inexperienced and not adequately trained. “Some people you can clearly tell never worked a day in their life in the kitchen,” he said.
Martinez said he made sure his cooks in Houston checked the temperature of the chicken.
Public-health policies in Houston don’t allow food trucks and trailers to serve raw foods such as sushi and ceviche. But former employees, including Martinez and Marisel Rodriguez, another former vessel captain in Houston, said sushi was sold from their vessels.
One former commissary cook in Texas said Reef tried to get a variance, or a special permit, to sell sushi in trailers in Houston around spring 2021. But he said employees were told to serve sushi even though Reef was still waiting for approval.
“The brand-expansion team was very much pushing us to open,” the former commissary cook said. “The variance was eventually denied.”
Martinez said that one day he and other vessel managers received a group text message telling them to dump anything tied to the sushi menu Kumi, owned by Sam Nazarian’s virtual-brand company C3.
Managers were told via text messages to “get rid of all your sushi stuff,” he said. “All the sushi boxes. Anything sushi-related, get rid of it. Like they were trying to hide a body.”
“We have selected global licensing partners like Reef to partner with us on the commitment of safely making our many award-winning brands,” C3 said in a statement to Insider. “We are working with our partners to make sure they are constantly keeping up with the ever changing state and local changing post-Covid laws, which is crucial to C3.”
“Reef is very proud of our food safety record,” a spokesperson said in a previous statement given to Insider in early November. “Reef has not had a food-borne illness outbreak to date.”
Former employees described ‘fireballs’ and explosions in 2 trailers
In Houston, former employees said, one trailer had recurring problems with “fireballs” that in one case burned a cook.
“They didn’t have the correct type of regulators within the units, and it caused fireballs to emit from some equipment,” the former market director in Texas said. He said some units lacked proper shutoff valves to keep propane from filling up the vessels. “There’s one team member whose face was burned, her fingers were burned,” he said.
A few weeks later, the same unit “kicked out” another fireball with two crew members inside, he said. “Neither one of them were hurt, thank God.”
Corporate supervisors were alerted after the first incident, but Reef didn’t fix the grill in Houston until after it happened a third time, the former market director said.
In San Francisco, an explosion happened in a trailer after a cook turned on the burners, a former operations manager with inside knowledge of US operations said.
“The staff member turned on a burner. One lit, and then the other one, for whatever reason, right next to it didn’t,” he said. The employee was standing in front of the grill, and “all of a sudden the entire thing ignited, blew up, and then burned this lady’s eyes.”
The company investigated and “found it not to be equipment’s fault,” the former operations manager said. “They found it to be the staff member’s fault.”
‘We had constant problems with water’
In each market where Reef operates, the company has a central commissary or commercial kitchen where meals are prepped. Employees finish cooking the meals in the trailers, often called execution kitchens.
Former employees told Insider that execution kitchens in Houston, Chicago, and New York often had trouble sourcing clean water for the mobile execution kitchens.
“We had constant problems with water,” a former area manager based in the Midwest told Insider.
Of 28 inspections of Reef’s mobile units conducted by Chicago’s health department from July 2019 to November 9, 2021, Reef failed six, resulting in immediate shutdowns. “Inadequate water source for clean potable water” was listed among multiple food-safety violations for one vessel in an inspection record from October 12.
The former Midwest director said water tanks often froze in the winter, forcing workers to fill up jugs of water at the commissary and transport them to the trailer.
The former food-trailer manager in New York City, who worked for Reef from mid-2019 until the end of 2020, said it was common for the tanks filled with water to freeze during winter, leaving trailers with no water for days. “We used to try to ration out the water as best as we can,” he said.
He said supervisors would ignore requests to replenish water. “I’m like, ‘Dude, we can’t even wash dishes in here,'” he said.
He said his supervisor’s response was to use a rag and “just wipe off the bowl,” and not to worry.
Martinez, the former vessel captain in Houston, said that after supervisors ignored his request for more water, he grabbed empty jugs and drove a mile to fetch water from a Reef trailer that had access to a faucet.
Other times, he said, employees dipped into the food trailer’s stash of Dasani bottles meant for customers.
“Whenever we ran out of water, we used whatever we could to make up for it. So we’d crack open the Dasani case,” said Martinez, who worked for Reef from June to October 2021.
Martinez and other former Reef employees said management did not address critical supply or operational issues. “The attitude was basically ‘fend for yourselves,'” said Martinez.
A Reef spokesperson previously told Insider that some food-permitting regulations were not practical, such as a requirement in Houston that vessels be transported back nightly to the commissaries.
“The existing permitting frameworks never contemplated our mobile and modular model. As we wait for cities to catch up, we continue to work closely with local regulators to ensure that we operate safely and in full compliance with local regulations,” Reef previously told Insider.
Reef previously told Insider that vessels did not use water for cooking and that the water used in vessels was the “exact same water that is safely used in your home or favorite restaurant. ”
“Unlike traditional food trucks, water is not involved in on-site cooking nor the preparation of food within our kitchen vessels,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement.
But Martinez and Rodriguez said water was needed in trailers for cleaning dishes and counters, washing hands, and sometimes cooking food.
Specifically, they said some trailers prepared food from Wow Bao, a Chicago fast-casual chain with an Asian-inspired menu that requires water for steaming rice and pot stickers and for prepping sauces.
“The teriyaki and the orange chicken, you’re supposed to add a little bit of water to make a sauce,” Rodriguez said. Rodriguez, who said she worked at Reef from April 2020 to September 2021, said the truck where she worked sometimes used a “garden hose” to get water.
In a statement to Insider, Wow Bao said that it had over 500 delivery-only kitchens and that it worked with select Reef locations.
Reef employees say they were told they had to hit growth ‘benchmarks’ to satisfy VC investors
Reef and its rivals like Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens benefited from the surge in takeout and delivery orders during the pandemic.
After landing $700 million in funding from SoftBank in November 2020, Reef’s ghost-kitchen operation has tripled, growing from 100 kitchen vessels to 320 kitchen vessels operating in the US and globally.
Since August, the company has cut deals to open 700 locations with Wendy’s and 300 locations with TGI Fridays over the next five years.
But in its quest to open trailers at a rapid clip, Reef took shortcuts, former employees said.
“It was told to me they needed to hit these benchmarks to keep the venture-capital people happy in terms of how many trucks are in service,” the former area manager in the Midwest said.
The former market director in Texas said Reef’s attitude internally when it came to local governments was, “We’re going to set up, and they can’t stop us.”
A former operations manager said Reef’s goal was to always “get the right permits.” But, he said, if the permit wasn’t coming fast enough, the orders were to “open it up, and then work on the permits behind the scenes.”
“It’s a typical example of a tech company trying to run a restaurant company like a tech company,” the former Midwest director said. “The overall plan, you know, I thought it was a pretty good plan. But when it came to the execution, it seemed like nobody had a clue.”