It wasn’t long ago that there was a certain stigma attached to the term ‘dark kitchens’.
With food delivery still in its infancy and understanding of how these places operated fairly limited, the first image on anybody’s mind when asked about the subject would have been windowless shipping containers at the back of dingy industrial estates.
Want to know where one is located? Follow the constant hum of returning mopeds and you’ll soon find out.
But after a year in which we have all been prevented from dining in restaurants for several months at a time, home delivery — and the kitchen infrastructure that exists to serve it — has had its chance to shine.
And whether you know them by other monikers — cloud kitchens, virtual kitchens, satellite kitchens, ghost kitchens or anything else — the reality is that these off-site catering places are now an important part of the foodservice fabric.
In fact, speak to some of the providers behind such facilities and they will argue that their kitchen spaces are among the most proficient in the business – spacious, flexible, clean and fully certified to meet any regulatory or local authority requirements.
When you think about it, the dark model is relatively simple to dissect and indicative of the way real estate at large is managed: a location is owned and operated by a third party which uses it to produce meals on behalf of a partner company or rents the space out so they can do it themselves.
The model has been the catalyst for the emergence of ‘virtual brands’ and made it possible to start a restaurant business without actually having to open a single restaurant.
For established restaurant operators, meanwhile, it has provided an opportunity to expand into geographic areas that simply wouldn’t have been viable otherwise.
And in an era when rents and rates were a talking point even before the onslaught of a global pandemic, dark kitchens can seem an attractive option for operators seeking a cost-effective revenue stream.
There is much debate over the profitability of the delivery model for some stakeholders within this intriguing ecosystem and there are certainly many questions around this that won’t get answered until the market has evolved further.
But as far as the availability of professional, fully-equipped kitchen facilities is concerned, things are only going to get better.
The key word, of course, is utilisation: delivery kitchen providers need the spaces they rent out to be used to their capacity in order to be able to create more; restaurant providers need to be able to see a clear return on the spaces they are hiring to want to take on more to expand brands, day-parts, volume or location.
It’s a fascinating part of the market and one that is very much here to stay even as the industry prepares to welcome guests back inside to restaurants again.