By Tim Wilkinson
What are they?
The last year has seen a dramatic rise in the demand for takeaways and delivery. A portion of that market is serviced by what are known as “Dark Kitchens” or “Cloud Kitchens”. These kitchens prepare food for meal delivery only; they don’t have tables or offer food for collection. A Dark Kitchen is a restaurant business without the restaurant; there are no waiting staff, no reservations, no mood music, no tablecloths. They are commercial grade commissary kitchens, where food can be prepared, cooked and dispatched to consumers. Usually operating in lower rent areas they can be situated in industrial estates or car parks, sometimes in shipping containers or warehouses with multiple kitchen units, the business model focuses on keeping overheads low, customising spaces to enhance productivity and using technology and third party apps to optimise delivery. In the UK, third party apps such as Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Just Eat reportedly offer food prepared in Dark Kitchens. In the US, companies such as, GrubHub, Uber Eats, DoorDash, Postmates do so.
The disruptive potential of Dark Kitchens (and the third party apps that provide the portal for customer purchasing) for the restaurant industry are of concern to restaurateurs. As the Economist reports, the commission charged by third party apps in the US can leave a slim margin for owners. The digital market place is competitive and presents risks particularly for smaller businesses with less influence when negotiating fees. Apps insights into customer purchasing data provide crucial commercial information and agency in the marketplace, while some businesses feel they are at the mercy of their ranking on the app – where, it is claimed, there is little transparency about why top hits are listed first. But alongside these challenges are stories of dark kitchens as a lifeline, with dark kitchen prepared food delivery providing a way to keep brands alive and in some cases, to expand operations through the pandemic.
A brief and potted history of the term ‘Dark Kitchen’
Searching newspaper databases for the term ‘Dark Kitchen’ hits before 2017, you see phrases like; “for years he cooked for his family in a small, dark kitchen”, “an awful, tinge grey, dismal house with a damp basement and dark kitchen”. But from 2017 dark kitchens stopped being a reference to low light levels. That is when Deliveroo launched their delivery only kitchens called ‘Editions’. Their current website for this brand (Deliveroo ‘Editions’), describes the offer as bespoke kitchens designed for delivery, on all inclusive, flexible contracts at sites that offer potential for growing delivery business and a brand. The terms Virtual Restaurant appears to pre-date the name Dark Kitchen, with various references to it from 2015 (see Barry Popik’s website The Big Apple, which provides a nice insight into the lexicon around “Shadow Kitchens”).
What’s in a name?
The term ‘Dark Kitchen’ is value laden. I am unsure of its origin. It seems to connote something rather sinister; perhaps relating to their connection to questions about the ethics of the gig economy and related worker rights and pay issues. But it also may convey a view of a business model as too industrial, an anathema to the personal service of a restaurant.
‘Dark Kitchen’ is probably the most negative name for delivery-only kitchens, but a series of other labels offer a range of connotations. Dark Kitchens are also known as: ‘Shadow Kitchens’, ‘Ghost Kitchens’, ‘Cloud Kitchens’ and ‘Virtual Kitchens. I find this range of terms interesting. Rather like choosing from an online menu from a favourite food delivery app – you can pick the term you most like the sound of, while only having a vague sense of who or what might be behind it. To me, the term Shadow Kitchen sounds rather dubious, but perhaps not as malevolent as a Dark Kitchen. The term Ghost Kitchen seems to connote the ephemerality of a delivery only kitchen – the way they can pop-up temporarily and disappear again. The idea of Cloud and Virtual Kitchens seem to emphasise the dislocation of Dark Kitchens from everyday life and their connection to e-commerce.
I wonder if the range of terminology used to describe Dark Kitchens says something about the importance of a sense of place to food and food service. Restaurants are about food, but also the atmosphere and emotions attached to eating and drinking, and the theatre of service. Dark Kitchens could easily be seen as an attack on the importance of a connection between food and the places where we eat; they can be anonymous, windowless shipping containers – not known for their atmosphere. If we choose to see delivery only kitchens in this way then they seem to be merely a node in a production chain, designed to be efficient as possible. But Dark Kitchens are also about another place, often our homes, where food is delivered and consumed. Before the pandemic, takeaway and delivery were viewed as second best to the real thing; to eating out. But Covid has elevated the status of delivery and takeaway. Eating culture has changed. Whether this will be a lasting change only time will tell.
Don’t throw the baby out with the dark kitchen
Although aspects of the Dark Kitchen business model should be questioned, it is worth considering the opportunities they offer. The Independent Help the Hungry campaign with the Felix Project used a social dark kitchen to deliver 1.5m handmade meals using surplus food to vulnerable people and low income families. There may be other opportunities for the Dark Kitchens concept to be used constructively. That is, if we don’t dismiss them, on the basis of a sinister sounding name.