Picture this: It’s a rainy Sunday night and you have two choices.
You can dash down the block to the supermarket, in the apocalyptic downpour, and conjure up the ingredients for a meal. Or you can order a burrito on UberEats.
I’ll take the burrito for $10, Alex.
So, you open up your UberEats app and start scrolling. Then, while searching for the best Mexican in your hood, you discover a brand-new Italian eatery. And a brand-new burger joint. And a brand-spanking-new dumpling house.
It seems as though your neighbourhood has transformed into a veritable culinary destination right underneath your nose.
Nah, not quite.
We are entering the age of the dark kitchen, my friend.
A dark kitchen is a commercial kitchen where various “restaurants” whip up dishes from their respective menus. You can order from the menu via a food delivery app, but you may not pass go, you may not collect $200, and you may not visit the restaurant.
Only the cooks and couriers pass through.
So, what’s the point of these kitchens?
For a restaurateur, the perks of a dark kitchen would probably be to do with making or saving money.
In many cases, a few restaurants will share the dark kitchen. Thus, they also share facilities (such as dishwashers and fridges) and running costs.
This helps eliminate some of the overhead of a traditional restaurant model. Plus, as there will be no guests, you don’t need to spend money on fitouts or prime real estate.
For food delivery platforms such as UberEats and Deliveroo, the perks lie in the data.
Consider how many times you’ve noticed a food trend take hold. Poke bowls, for example. One minute you’ve never heard of them; the next minute they’re everywhere.
Food delivery platforms can use their data to tap into trends before they take hold. For example, If they notice poke bowls rising in popularity, they can set up a dark kitchen, potentially within weeks, and thus find themselves at the forefront of the “movement.”
With that said, the way UberEats and Deliveroo deal with dark kitchens is different.
UberEats doesn’t currently own any dark kitchens. Instead, it encourages the restaurants on its roster to set up what is almost a “side hustle.”
For example, it might think a high-end Japanese restaurant would be well-placed to set up a separate poke bowl business. The restaurant would come up with a logo and name for the poke bowl business. To the naked eye of an UberEats user, they’d be entirely separate businesses, but behind the scenes, both restaurants will be operating out of the same kitchen.
Deliveroo operates its own dark kitchens, aka Deliveroo Editions.
A Deliveroo Editions location reportedly contains around eight purpose-built kitchens, with each allocated to a different restaurant brand. While restaurants provide their own staff, Deliveroo builds out the kitchens and integrates its own technology.
Last, but by no means least, consumers benefit from the breadth of choice. Where once you could only order delivery from the restaurants with a physical location in, say, a 5km radius, now you might find your options have doubled.
In theory, it sounds like a win/win/win.
But we know the food delivery business isn’t easy.
Foodora closed down operations in Australia last year, and neither UberEats or Deliveroo is currently profitable. In the race to win hearts and minds, delivery platforms will pull out all the stops, even if that means discounting services and losing money.
Ultimately, though, things that bend might have to break.
It seems likely that going forward, food delivery platforms will become more expensive for the customer and restaurants may have to give up a bigger cut. On top of that, food delivery apps continue to face scrutiny from regulators over the employment status of its workforce.
How dark kitchens factor into the future of food delivery remains unclear.
For now, though, whenever you walk past a seemingly empty building, consider this: behind the four walls, there might be a bevy of chefs and a thriving food scene. It’s a food revolution, for sure, but the dark truth of dark kitchens (and food delivery apps, in general) is that they're probably not the win/win/win they seem.
If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you.