Are dark kitchens and virtual restaurants the future?
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With limits on table service dining as a result of Covid-19, restaurants of all sizes face pressure to strengthen off-premises sales, which has accelerated their focus on takeaway, delivery and order-ahead options.
Dark kitchens comprise the latest step in the increasingly tech-focused evolution of the food delivery sector.
Coupled with other growing concepts such as “virtual menus” – menus for brands that exist purely online – dark kitchens, also referred to as “cloud” or “ghost” kitchens, are perhaps the most important development this industry has seen since the emergence of delivery aggregators.
What is a ghost kitchen?
Put simply, a ghost kitchen is a stand-alone kitchen unit that prepares food to be sold under various brands on delivery apps. Ghost kitchens have no seating capacity for in-house diners or walk-ins, as they focus only on delivery, preparing food once an order comes in through a delivery app or an online ordering system. Once the meal is ready, delivery drivers collect it for delivery. Some dark kitchens also offer takeout, letting customers pick up their food themselves.
But are these the future? We spoke to Josh Simon, the co-founder of Lucky Peach House of Ramen, a dark kitchen in Birdhaven, and Michael Hunt, who owns a company called Collective Kitchens which has 11 dark kitchens that they rent out to different restaurants and food entrepreneurs in Joburg, about the future of dark kitchens and virtual restaurants, and below is what they had to say.
Simon said his partner Larry Hodes and he started a dark kitchen before Covid-19 as a way for restaurants to offer more value to their customers and utilise kitchen space more efficiently. He said as restaurateurs who keep a close eye on global trends, they had seen how well the dark kitchen model was working in cities such as New York, London and Rome and wanted to trial the concept here at home. So the idea was there.
“When Covid-19 hit, it accelerated the need for food delivery, and we saw an opportunity to expand our dark kitchen offering, which is called The Dark Kitchen, which specialises in pizza and is the only 9th slice pizza in the world. Then came Bagel Burgers, and with the recent lockdown, we saw an opportunity to launch Lucky Peach House of Ramen. Following my years of travel and experimentation with Japanese food, this was something I had always wanted to do, and the opportunity seemed perfect to launch the concept.
“The response to our ramen has been incredible, with us selling out in the first week and subsequent weeks that have followed. South Africans are experimental people and eager to try new things. Our customers have embraced the concept with open arms. We had thought the ramen would do well because it’s flavoursome (prepared and flavoured over two days), filling and comforting, but we could not have imagined it would do this well straight out of the gate,” said Simon.
He said the dark kitchen concept is very much a trend that has been embraced by small business owners and entrepreneurs, and by embracing this trend, you are able to support SMEs which are fast becoming the backbone of our economy, and you are also exposing yourself to new types of food and tastes, and that is always a good thing too.
“I think this trend is here to stay. The dark kitchen trend allows restaurants to operate with lean overheads and adapt to the latest food trends. In terms of what’s next, some things will always stay the same. Ensuring your food is top quality will keep your customers coming back and allow you to scale. At the end of the day, people want to eat good food, and the dark kitchen is another way that we are able to meet these demands,” he said.
Hunt also believes this trend is here to stay. He said dark kitchens can make delivery profitable, because it reduces costs significantly, and making delivery work out of a traditional restaurant space with high rents, cost base and upfront costs is very difficult.
“Our team has been researching and looking at the dark kitchen trend in Europe and the US even pre-pandemic, with the strong belief that delivery is the future and how consumers will mostly interact with restaurants going forward. During the pandemic, we were forced to pivot some of our existing restaurants to optimise for delivery, and we managed to get an opportunity to take up space with Collective Kitchens, which then led to the launch of these delivery-only or virtual brands. They are definitely the future and here to stay. I think we’ll see more influencers starting virtual brands, restaurants focusing on packaging and food types that deliver well, and definitely the use of more dark kitchens to cook food,” said Hunt.
“The past year has been challenging for everyone, particularly in the food industry. However, we’ve had to be nimble and learn quickly and are starting to see the rewards from all the hard work over the past year. We have launched six virtual stores in the past 12 months, which would be impossible in the traditional restaurant space,” he said.