There has been both intrigue and anxiety over what goes on behind the scenes in a so-called ‘dark kitchen’.
But step inside and the somewhat clandestine and dingy perception is not borne out.
Chefs are readying themselves for a busy shift, preparing and cooking meals to be taken directly to the doors of hungry customers when I arrive at a building, once used as a church, off a side street in a suburb in north Leeds. There are no windows in the premises, but inside, it is white, bright and light.
Pizza, curries and Chinese noodles are all made from the location, a converted red-brick property, which is the only Deliveroo Editions site in Yorkshire. The commercial unit hosts several restaurant brands in a collection of kitchens - and the focus is solely on home delivery. “I would say we emphatically reject the ‘dark kitchen’ label,” says Robert Oxley, Deliveroo’s head of corporate communications.
It may, he speculates, have stemmed from the company’s use of shipping containers for some of its satellite kitchen models, particularly in Editions’ early days. “These are super-kitchens or kitchen hubs,” he says. “‘Dark kitchens’ could not be further from the truth.”
It is just before 5pm - weekday opening time - and the first two orders have been placed. “There’s a lot of student demand around this area, particularly in Headingley and Leeds city centre,” site manager John Fell tells me. The unit, on the edge of Chapeltown, sits adjacent to a student accommodation block - and both Leeds Beckett and Leeds University are within a five minute drive.
John, 24, previously worked as a restaurant manager at KFC, but joined Deliveroo Editions when it opened in Leeds in October 2017. “The biggest difference is that you don’t deal with face-to-face customers,” he says. “Whereas in a traditional restaurant you have interaction with customers, Deliveroo is all online-based. We don’t get any customers on site here at all.”
Though the company refuses to disclose order numbers from Leeds, or any of its Editions sites for commercial reasons, a steady stream come in on the Wednesday evening I visit.
The Leeds site is one of the delivery company’s smaller Editions premises, with capacity for six occupiers (some have space for up to 12), but, at present - and there is turnover - just three kitchens are in use: by Indian restaurant brand Zouk, pizza joint Proove and Chinese cuisine brand Noodle Inn. The latter, which has restaurants in Sheffield, wanted to expand to a new audience without having to open another restaurant. “It was a very convenient way of going to another city,” says business development manager Yeebin Tham. “It’s had a huge impact on our customer base.”
Deliveroo says its Editions sites help both smaller local restaurants and high street chains to reach new customers and boost their revenues. Many, like those in Leeds, also make use of the sites to create ‘virtual brands’, using their kitchen, equipment and stock to create another menu or cuisine under a different brand name.
“Editions are purpose-built delivery only kitchens, allowing restaurants to set up shop without having to open a premise on the high street,” says Robert. “Restaurants who operate out of these kitchens don’t have the usual capital costs of setting up a bricks and mortar site, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.”
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A threat to restaurants?
Some restaurants use Editions as a platform to establish a customer base in a new area before launching a dine-in premises. It is why Robert maintains that the sites are not a threat to the traditional restaurants and takeaways much-loved on British high streets, rather, he says, they are offering diners more choice and allowing existing businesses to expand their home delivery offer or move into new areas. “Restaurants certainly are seeing delivery as a way of growing their business,” he says.
“It is a way of essentially meaning that on more occasions, people are putting money through their tills. I think delivery has a very important role to play in what restaurants are doing and how they are growing and expanding and how also, maybe, their businesses are surviving at a time when economically there are challenges, whether that be the cost of food, the ability to recruit staff or just the competitive environment they are in.”
But not everyone is supportive of so-called ‘dark kitchen’ sites. Just last month, the chairman of the Asian Catering Federation, which represents thousands of eateries, warned that a rise in ‘dark kitchens’ could kill off restaurants and takeaways, and with them, the entire high street. Yawar Khan said people using apps to order from the kitchens were “helping to accelerate a process which is destroying high street economies”, adding: “We need restaurants to drive the footfall, which is vital for surviving business.”
Miron Rahman, who runs The Original Dil Raj restaurant in Barnsley, says times are already challenging with high street struggles and uncertainty around Brexit - and ‘dark kitchens’ are giving him another thing to worry about. “The way they operate, we think they will be able to do things a lot cheaper than us,” he says.
Zulfi Karim, who runs Curryosity restaurant in Saltaire shares similar fears. “They have a really unfair advantage on restaurants and takeaways,” he says, claiming their operational costs must be lower, without a building to maintain. He continues: “When you have got people like Deliveroo promising you restaurant food at home, that’s another way of people not leaving the house, instead having a restaurant meal on their sofas.”
The future of food
Since Editions launched in April 2017, it has been rolled out across the UK, where there are now around 25 sites, as well as internationally. When contacted for comment, Leeds City Council said ‘dark kitchens’ register and are subject to the same inspection regime and legislation as would all other food businesses.
The company invests in its sites, which all come with communal spaces and individual kitchen areas and then gets commission from every meal ordered. It provides the facilities, delivery drivers and centralised services including cleaning and site management, whilst the restaurant brands must provide chefs, ingredients and recipes for their kitchen space - and, says Robert, they must maintain a four or five star hygiene rating.
In Leeds, doors decked in Deliveroo Editions’ recognisable turquoise and purple branding open to a driver waiting and collection area, with hot plates for food that is packaged and ready to go. In the main food area, the six self-contained kitchen spaces line one wall, and a shared walk-in fridge and food storage pantry area are along the other. Around ten staff from the restaurant brands work at the site, with another four from Deliveroo and a fleet of up to 30 drivers.
Both Robert and John suggest this is the future for food. “I would love something like this where I live, knowing the concept and how well it would work,” says John. Deliveroo do not yet operate where he is from in Barnsley. “When you see how it takes off, you see the future.”
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