2020 has most definitely been the year that dark kitchens got their chance to shine as, across the globe, restaurants, pubs and cafes were forced to swap ‘cheers’ for ‘cheerio’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite some negative press over the last couple of years, dark kitchens (or ghost kitchens) became the saviour of the hospitality industry this year; allowing restaurants to continue serving their customers when they may otherwise have been forced to close for good.
Fast Lives Need Faster Food
Despite the fact that technology is advancing in leaps and bounds – advances which are supposed to be make our lives easier – the fact is that we’re all working longer hours and living increasingly busy lives. It’s no wonder then that, in the last ten years, our consumption of takeaways and food deliveries has skyrocketed (hey, turning on the microwave just takes too darn long!) As our consumption has increased, delivery and takeaway services around the world have leapt to meet the challenge with new, online innovations.
While these food delivery platforms were great for restaurants who were already providing a takeout service, they were a little more problematic for those whose business was not geared up – in terms of design, logistics or packaging – for food to be prepared and sent on its merry way on a back of a motorbike. In addition to this, a lot of restaurants just simply did not have the space or the capacity for the extra orders which such a service would invoke. As with all things, necessity led to invention and, the dark kitchen was born.
Uber Takes The Wheel On Food Delivery
Thought to have been dreamt up in 2018 by Uber’s Ken Chong and Matt Sawchuk and, chef Andro Radonich, dark kitchens are standalone spaces created or rented for the sole purpose of preparing food to be delivered to customers’ homes and workplaces. So named because of the fact that many of these cheap spaces are windowless, dark kitchens soon began to grow in popularity as restaurants and startups began to see the big picture in terms of benefits and profits.
When the COVID-19 pandemic swooped in and called last orders in our pubs, hotels and restaurants, even huge multinationals like McDonald’s got on board with dark kitchens in order to stay afloat during these troubled times. As a result, dark kitchens have seen a stratospheric rise with Uber Eats buying over 100 spaces in London this year and, fried chicken brand, Coqfighter, opening a new delivery kitchen every two weeks between April and June. Despite this, as our eateries reopened on the 4th of July, there were those who predicted that dark kitchens would, once again, be cast back into the shadows. While it’s true that customers have been enjoying a return to the ‘dine in’ experience (helped greatly by initiatives such as the UK’s ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme, it’s already clear that dark kitchens are still very much on the menu for a huge number of diners. Here’s why:
The Price Is Right
Although it was initially a wrench not to be able to go out (or even out out) when our venues closed, a massive number of punters soon realised how much money they were saving by replacing a night in the Taj Mahal with a night in and a takeaway. This has been particularly significant for those whose work – and therefore income – was affected by the pandemic. When dining in a restaurant, inflated alcohol prices, service charges and tips are just a few ‘extras’ which can see the bill come to more than double the price of a takeaway. As countries around the world unsurprisingly slid into recession, many customers are still opting for the cost savings of food delivery to their home rather than eating out.
A Matter Of Convenience
Let’s face it, after an initial grumble or two, a lot of us have kind of started to enjoy the comfort and convenience of having dinner delivered to our sofas. No dressing up, no messing about with cabs – or worse, public transport – and, praise the Lord, no queueing. The one good thing about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has forced many of us (apart from those on the front line) to slow down and actually appreciate down time. While we’ll still, no doubt, be visiting bars and restaurants as a treat, it’s felt that a great majority of people are not yet ready to relinquish this new, more relaxed way of life – including having their egg foo yung whisked directly to their door.
Erring On The Side Of Caution
Although we’re now able to visit restaurants and bars, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. On any given day, a quick look at the news tells us that, while the COVID-19 crisis may be in retreat, it’s by no means over. As such, a significant percentage of the population remains wary when it comes to visiting public places on a frequent basis. Added to this is the fact that new guidelines and safety measures mean that the dining out experience is a very different one to the one that customers are used to can be off putting. Restrictions such as the need to remain seated, not being able to visit the bar and, not being able to socialise in large groups may not seem that big a deal but, for those who are set in their ways, these can often be a deal breaker. In which case, these customers will often prefer to simply eat their favourite meal at home rather than go through the rigamarole of the new processes.
Variety Is The Spice Of Life
Unless you live in a big city with excellent transport links, the variety of dine in restaurants available can be limited, with many towns only having two or three venues on offer. The very nature of dark kitchens means that it can offer a much more comprehensive variety when it comes to food delivery. In some cases, just one dark kitchen might be preparing and delivering food from two or three different suppliers. For the customer, this means that delivery food platforms will offer much more choice than either the Indian or the pizza place in the customer’s nearest town centre.
Bite The Hand That Feeds
For bricks and mortar restaurants and establishments, the return to ‘bums on seats’ is no doubt good news – with many hailing ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ such a success that they’ve chosen to extend the scheme themselves in order to keep the good times rolling. That doesn’t, however, mean that they’ll be turning their backs on their dark kitchens anytime soon – for a number of reasons:
Watch This Space
Post-pandemic, restaurants and bars have strict guidelines to follow and, for the most part, these centre around social distancing. For dining establishments, this means seating far fewer customers at any given time in order to comply with the distancing measures. It goes without saying that, for a restaurant, this means fewer covers which, of course, means less cash coming in. Because of this, the continued business provided by food deliveries will remain vital for their survival until they are, once again, able to operate at full throttle – and seat a full house.
The Pandemic Pivot
As mentioned earlier, a great many customers are now simply accustomed to replacing the dine in experience with food deliveries and, a large number of restaurants and diners are now finding that deliveries have become the main hub of their business with dine in coming in a poor second. In fact, there are those (more than you may think) who are already looking towards winding down the bricks and mortar part of their businesses in order to focus solely on their delivery operations. As well as continued popularity with customers, this offers restaurant owners huge cost savings as they’re able to eradicate a number of expenditures including:
● Serving staff
● Rental of premises
● Laundering of linens
● Licenses for alcohol and entertainment
For restaurants, cutting out these overheads can help to turn a restaurant which is chugging along into an enterprise which is making a decent profit.
Right Idea, Wrong Platform?
While there’s no denying that food delivery continues to be the way forward for a lot of restaurants, some are still reluctant due to the options available. Although platforms like Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Just Eat can be a reasonably quick, easy and affordable way of boarding the delivery gravy train, they’re not without their problems. These platforms tend to offer a ‘quick fix’ for restaurants looking to pivot to deliveries – and can be handy for older restaurateurs who may not be exceptionally tech savvy. However, they do have their limitations, including:
Running costs can be steep – when signing up with one of these platforms, you’ll often find yourself faced with a sign up charge and a monthly fee as well as a ‘per order’ charge – which can soon mount up.
Low visibility – It’s great that you can reach a large number of customers by signing up to a delivery platform however, in most cases, each restaurant is afforded only a tiny headline page with one thumbnail picture. In an age where instant gratification is expected, this may not be ideal for restaurants who have a lot of competitors on the same site.
General control – Restaurants which sign up to food delivery platforms often complain that they will receive low or negative reviews because of issues which are beyond their control; such as food being cold on arrival or deliveries not arriving on time. This can be incredibly frustrating for a restaurateur who can be left to feel like his or her own business has been taken out of their hands.
For these reasons, more and more restaurants are turning to sites such as UpMenu which offer a lot more autonomy and control to the actual restaurant. UpMenu allows restaurants to set up their own online food ordering system – including mobile app – through which they are able to control and monitor their orders more effectively. Created in a way that even technophobes can get started quickly and easily, this option offers cost savings as well as lots of side dishes such as marketing tools, table reservation apps and, even loyalty programs.
There was a time when dining on takeout at home was considered the ‘poor man’s option’ but, those days are long gone, thanks, in part, to the coronavirus crisis. Instead, food delivery has become the preferred choice for a huge number of customers who prefer pasta in their PJs to a more formal dining experience.
While we certainly haven’t seen the end of our restaurants, customer wariness, distancing guidelines and soaring rental costs on business premises have created the perfect storm – which means that the sun is likely to be shining on the world’s dark kitchens for the foreseeable future.