ISSUE 01 | SECTOR REPORT

Dark kitchens

Why is restaurant food relocating from the high street to the industrial estate?

By Stephen Armstrong | Illustrations by Ange Hart

Dark kitchens illustration

Syracuse University is 250 miles from New York City. Yet students queuing at various spots across their campus one summer’s evening were waiting for food deliveries from Manhattan-based Sticky’s Finger Joint and The Ace Hotel’s hip No. 7 Subs, and Brooklyn favourite Croxley’s Ale House.

None of these restaurants has branches outside NYC. But in the basement of a nearby apartment block there’s a vast kitchen that’s a gastronomic portal to the Big Apple’s bustling food scene.

“The bulk of restaurants will not have storefronts ten years from now”

The kitchen belongs to Good Uncle – a recent tech start-up that is, effectively, a delivery-only restaurant. Popular New York eateries license their recipes for Good Uncle’s chefs to put together and bus out. “I think the bulk of restaurants will not have storefronts ten years from now,” CEO and co-founder Wiley Cerilli believes. “Why would you? The technology exists where you don’t need the hassle.”

He may have a point. In New York, for instance, the Green Summit Group uses central commissaries in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Chicago to offer everything from meatballs and salad to juice and burgers. In the UK, meanwhile, Deliveroo Editions is working with 200 restaurants – including MEATLiquor, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Busaba Eathai – to set up 30 takeaway kitchens in 10 British cities, including London and Brighton.

The term for this new trend is dark kitchen – although some prefer ghost kitchens, restaurants without walls or dotcommisaries. The principle is this: as the gig economy collides with big data and a drive to disrupt the food service industry, dark kitchens may become the way all your takeaway food is made.

To some degree, dark kitchens are simply a data-driven twist on an age-old tradition. Slaves building the Egyptian pyramids had meals delivered from the ancient equivalent of a dark kitchen; the first pizza delivery as invented by the Ancient Greeks came from roadside cookhouses; and when London’s revolutionary modernist apartment block Isokon opened in 1934, flats had tiny food preparation areas because meals were cooked in a basement kitchen and delivered by dumb waiter. Even today, pizza giants like Domino’s use commissaries – large food preparation centres supplying hundreds of individual restaurants with prepared portions of bread and toppings. What’s changed is the data.

“This is a way of being present without bricks and mortar and front of house”

Deliveroo Editions, explains Deliveroo property acquisitions manager Patrick Weiss, “will enable hundreds of restaurants to reach new customers in cities around the world, without needing new high street premises thanks to extensive market analysis that draws on the unique data available to Deliveroo. Using our own technology, we can identify specific local cuisines missing in an area, identify customer demand for that missing cuisine and hand-pick restaurant brands that are most likely to appeal to customers in that area.”

In London’s Camberwell, Deliveroo Editions operates from a series of prefab huts in a carpark surrounded by Victorian industrial premises. Each restaurant has its own kitchen in a separate hut. Tablets alert chefs, who prepare dishes, and hit a buzzer alerting runners to transfer it to the dispatch hut. Frank – the name for Deliveroo’s dispatch algorithm – tracks orders and riders, picking the rider based on past performance. Couriers wait outside watching a TV screen – when their name comes up, they collect the dish and head off.

At the moment, Deliveroo is the only company operating dark kitchens in the UK. But with a recent YouGov poll showing Brits eat more than 22m takeaways a week, they won’t be for long. Rival UberEATS is already considering the option, according to a talk by Marco Knitel, UberEATS’ European MD. Earlier this year, Knitel outlined how Uber’s ratings, reviews and customer data help the company understand potential delivery partners, and predict whether it makes sense to open a new restaurant – or a dark kitchen. The ratings also show how far certain food can travel before customer satisfaction starts to dip through low temperature or sogginess of food.

“Dark kitchens may become the way all your takeaway food is made”

Food service consultant Peter Blackman explains the economics: “Currently, Deliveroo charges £2.50 to the customer and then takes a percentage of the meal price. Editions makes sense in three scenarios – if you have too much delivery business going through your stores in that area; if you want to extend into a new region this is a way of being present without bricks and mortar and front of house; and if you’re a small start-up and you don’t want the launch cost of a restaurant, this is way to do it.”

So dark kitchens, like much else with roots in Silicon Valley, offer greater choice and convenience in the comfort of your own home, serviced by an out-of-sight provider.

To summarise: The term ‘dark kitchens’ describes kitchens of established restaurants that are set up away from the high street just to service the home delivery market. They are on the increase as the gig economy collides with big data and a drive to disrupt the food service industry. If they take off, they have the potential to turn traditional takeaways – even eating out – on their head.

Cycle delivery illustration

The principle of Dark Kitchens is this: as the gig economy collides with big data and a drive to disrupt the food service industry, dark kitchens may become the way all your takeaway food is made.

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