It is difficult to miss the phenomenon of the “dark kitchen”. What is called in French “ghost kitchen” or “virtual restaurant” refers to meal delivery platforms. But it goes much further, with entrepreneurs who have been able to transform the crisis into business opportunities.
What if this was the solution adopted by the restaurant industry in “the next world”? The phenomenon of “dark kitchens” had already appeared before 2020, Deliveroo, among other things, started well before. But the trend has accelerated sharply since the health crisis; number of restaurateurs having embarked on the delivery of meals, coerced and forced.
A more complicated concept than it seems
However, it is impossible to reduce the dark kitchen to a simple delivery platform. In reality, this covers different stages of the chain. We can thus qualify equipped kitchens rented to restaurants or catering brands, supplies of ingredients, creations and launches of new recipes, meal preparations, and finally the definition which is most often used, that of the preparation and delivery of meals to individuals.
Usually, with the exception of some starred ones, restaurants are located in high traffic areas, city centers, office areas, train stations, airports, shopping centers… When you want to become a player in the dark kitchen, you rather adopt the low profile in terms of location. Better to focus on a kitchen in a neighborhood well placed for delivery, which has the advantage of less expensive rents.
A new kind of restoration
More room, more servers, a professional kitchen and delivery people, here is the trend that is emerging. The concept is attracting more and more restaurateurs, tired of this period of closure, and who also wish to free themselves from certain concerns related to personnel management, in particular recruitment difficulties. Others consider this solution as a diversification and additional turnover; delivery can be subcontracted to Deliveroo or Uber Eats, the two big players in the sector. Finally, there is a growing number of “pure players” on the market.
All is not rosy, however, so brands and restaurateurs must make themselves known for the business to take off, and the competition is already intense. Take-away sales can also be offered, but you still need to know where the famous kitchen is located. Making it known is therefore a significant element of the concept and digitalization is an element to be mastered from the launch.
Why such a commotion?
Even if the concept has its own particularities, one might wonder if all this excitement around the dark kitchen isn’t a bit exaggerated. Although the model has many advantages for a restaurant entrepreneur. Reduced investments thanks to less expensive premises, staff costs much lower than a classic restaurant already tip the scales. But it is also that meal delivery has a future. We don’t know when the Covid will stop its ravages, but the fact is that the trend of teleworking has started, that of evenings at home, and it won’t stop. On the contractor’s side, the dark kitchen will not suffer from a possible new sanitary closure.
The nerve center: delivery
There is no perfect model, and the weak point of the dark kitchen is that of delivery. It must be fast and efficient. However, managing a fleet of delivery people is certainly not simpler than managing a team of servers. This is the reason why most kitchens subcontract this point, which also puts them in a situation of partial dependence, not to mention the commission due to the subcontractor. However, the efficiency of this stage of the model is essential, because customers generally want to be delivered on similar schedules and do not appreciate delays. An English expert has highlighted the fact that large delivery companies could take over as Amazon was able to do vis-à-vis certain suppliers.
When the grown-ups get into it
At the end of 2019, Travis Kalanick, ex-CEO of Uber, raised some 400 million dollars from the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia in order to develop his startup, CloudKitchens, at his ease. He was pushed out of his Uber business, but remains a businessman with flair. CloudKitchens buys buildings at low cost, converts them into professional kitchens for meal delivery. The premises are rented to fast-food brands or restaurateurs. The man couldn’t help but also create a few brands that can make an impression, such as “Egg the F* out” or “Excuse My French Toast”. And he has already attacked the international.
Rest assured, dark kitchens will not make restaurants disappear, but they will transform several sectors and are potential sources of growth for commercial real estate, specialized last-mile logistics and algorithm pros. Here is indeed a new business on which it will be necessary from now on to count.