The dark side of dark kitchens
Do kitchens set up by delivery companies create choice for diners and opportunities for some restaurants, or will an automated future in fact benefit only shareholders, ask Olly Davy.
In the future, your meals will be made by machines and delivered by drones. Cooking will be nothing more than a hobby and restaurants will be for special occasions only. Seem far-fetched? Thanks to Editions, the latest innovation from the food delivery company Deliveroo, this scenario has come a step closer.
People want to eat restaurant-style food at home. In 2016 in the UK, demand for home delivery grew ten times faster than for eating out. Launched in late 2017, Editions is designed to help meet this demand. By analysing customer data, the company has identified so-called ‘cuisine gaps’ across London. For example, imagine you love dim sum but your favourite take away doesn’t deliver to your area – Deliveroo’s answer is not to open new restaurants, just kitchens in containers and self-employed couriers who whisk the food away on bicycles and mopeds.
Deliveroo is now operating approximately 74 container-based kitchens from 12 strategic locations around the capital. The sites and equipment are provided by the company, the chefs and ingredients by the restaurants. The idea makes good business sense. But is there a dark side to these ‘dark kitchens’? Chefs in windowless boxes hunched over roaring stoves does seem rather Dickensian.
“There’s nothing wrong with cooking in a container,” according to eco-chef and restaurateur Tom Hunt. “Of course you need your health and safety certificates, but conditions in a container kitchen are probably better than in many traditional restaurant kitchens.”
The real issue here is lack of transparency. Transparent food systems that allow consumers to find out how food is grown, raised or processed, although sadly rare, are good for everyone. Opaque, centralised empires, built on our data, feel like a step in the wrong direction. We should be making it easier to find out where our food comes from, not harder. “Most consumers want an ethical meal,” explains food industry consultant Peter Backman, “but they don’t want to have to check that it’s ethical.”
Founded in 2013 and now worth around £1.4 billion, Deliveroo raised more than £200 million in 2017 specifically for the Editions venture. Presumably, the company must now find ways to reduce costs and increase margins in order to satisfy investors. How they plan to do this was outlined in a presentation to shareholders last year, recently shared anonymously online. The answer: automation of food preparation and delivery. The technology exists, and it’s developing fast. Machines already make burgers, noodles, and pizzas, now 2018 will see the launch of the world’s first fully-automated domestic cooking robot. It’s not hard to see how dark kitchen operators might harness this technology.
It may be true that many restaurants are benefiting from the new-wave of food delivery platforms, which includes Deliveroo, UberEats and Amazon Restaurant, but the model doesn’t work for everyone. Some restaurants have found that sales through them replace those from people who would otherwise buy direct. The hefty costs can be hard to stomach, too. While Deliveroo’s commission is usually around 25% per order, this rises to up to 35% for restaurants that operate from Editions sites.
LOSS OF CONTROL
Another, perhaps inevitable, downside for restaurants is loss of control over their brand and the customer experience. The increase in the number of ‘virtual’ restaurants, delivery-only spin-offs of high street eateries, would seem to further this disempowerment. Does this pave the way to remove restaurants from the equation entirely?
There are other concerns about this type of business. Following a 2017 court case, Deliveroo’s green and silver-suited couriers are now legally classified as self-employed. While many workers no doubt value the flexibility this entails, it also means that obligations to them of a company that profits from their casual labour are minimal.
Furthermore, in its eagerness to roll out Editions, it seems Deliveroo might not always have played by the rules. Following complaints from local residents, both Southwark (London) and Hove (Sussex) councils have issued Deliveroo with enforcement notices regarding dark kitchens operating within their borders.
There are several ways that companies that operate in this way could improve. They could give restaurants more say in how the platform is run; take less commission; treat workers as employed and pay them fairly; work with councils to choose suitable sites; and introduce policies around food provenance and sustainability. But as such considerations would compete with profits, don’t hold your breath.
So, what can you do? If you would rather not buy your meals from dark kitchens, Editions options are clearly labelled on the Deliveroo website and app. But that’s missing the point somewhat. If you’re an ethical consumer, the answer is the same as it’s ever been: Vote with your wallet. “Order from places you know and trust,” says Will Beresford, co-founder of Food Stars UK, which rents out commercial kitchens. “Do your homework and choose restaurants whose sourcing and sustainability practices are in line with your beliefs.”
Technology will continue to disrupt the foodservice industry. The demand for delivery food will keep rising. Restaurants have to adapt accordingly and innovation does have a vital role to play in improving food systems and feeding the planet sustainably. For those of us who believe there is more to food than choice and convenience, though, the vision of a world where food is dehumanised for profit by an inscrutable corporation is deeply unpalatable.