With curfews, lockdowns, and restaurant closures over the past couple of years, we’ve tended to rely more on home meal delivery. While these services have enabled some restaurateurs to maintain an activity, this has also led to an acceleration of the phenomenon of “dark kitchens”. In other words, “ghost” kitchens, without room or service, focused exclusively on delivery. Born in the land of Uncle Sam, the concept has spread like wildfire in the wake of delivery platforms like Deliveroo or Uber Eats, causing a small revolution in the world of catering, in Strasbourg and elsewhere. Opportunities for some, conflicts of interest for others: in Strasbourg, between restaurateurs and the municipality, dark kitchens have not finished dividing.
Imagine the kitchens of Starling Burger, Végéman and your neighborhood pizzeria in one and the same shared space, but each in its own zone. No customers, no service, no head waiter and not even a lot of dishes. Instead, the incessant ballet of delivery men and cooks, orders passing from hand to hand: this is the principle of dark kitchens. From perfectly fitted and equipped kitchens, small teams now prepare dishes ordered on the internet, just as if they were cooking for traditional restaurants.
In recent years, we have taken a significant turn in our consumption patterns: in 2020, home meal delivery generated a turnover of 5 billion euros, with market growth of 47% over two years. (2018-2020), according to the expert firm Food Service Vision. We have become accustomed to being delivered everywhere, all the time, immediately. And then there was a tidal wave of street foodcravings and tastes that have evolved. All of this has made it necessary to adapt the offer and has prompted restaurateurs to react.
For a small independent establishment, it is complicated to make investments that are too costly, particularly when emerging from a crisis. More flexible and more economical than traditional restaurants, the shared kitchens of virtual restaurants therefore meet a real need for both consumers and restaurateurs.
We can also identify two large “families” of dark kitchens: real estate and operational. Real estate dark kitchens consist of renting shared or privatized restaurant kitchens, with or without staff, and offer various services (delivery reception, storage, cleaning, maintenance, waste management, tech ordering platform). This is the solution that many restaurateurs have opted for during confinement, via solutions like Not So Dark for example, which offers on its site, “maximize your existing kitchen resources to generate additional revenue streams without adding overhead “.
The dark kitchens operational with regard to they directly operate all of their activity in their kitchens with their staff and their recipes. They are either single-brand or similar to digital food halls marketing a portfolio of virtual brands focused mainly on street food and comfort food. This is the case, for example, of Dévor or Taster, which between them offer a dozen different brands on delivery platforms.
In Strasbourg, Outfry, Dirty Vegan Burgers and Pepe Chicken are cooked in the same place
Some time ago in Toulouse, opened Popafood, one of the largest dark kitchen in France, with no less than 12 kitchen “boxes” spread over several floors. Local cuisine, African, Oriental, Laotian or even Brazilian, in the long term, Popafood plans to welcome between 15 and 20 brands in its kitchens. If Strasbourg is not yet at this level, we are however starting to have our small batch of dark kitchens. You may not know it, but you have surely already ordered a few times from different brands whose products come from the same kitchen. And for that, you can largely thank TASTER.
Created by the Frenchman Anton Soulier, the start-up displays on its website its ambition to “to build the largest digital restaurant group in the world, with the best food brands in delivery and cutting-edge technology to serve the next generation of restaurateurs “.
Today, TASTER deploys its four virtual brands in some 70 franchised establishments in France. Fried chicken from Out Fry, the bo-bun of Mission Saigonvegan burgers from At Burgers or more recently, fried chicken from pepe chicken (carried by FastGood cuisine). All come out of the same kitchens and are TASTER signs. In other words, you cannot enjoy one of these dishes sitting at a table in a restaurant.
Since last year, TASTER’s brand dedicated to Outfry fried chicken has even become the 2nd most ordered brand on delivery platforms, just behind KFC. Is it thanks to the taste and quality of the products or thanks to its fierce marketing? That’s another question, to which some Google reviews seem to provide an answer.
In Strasbourg, TASTER has installed its kitchens above the Carrefour City, November 22 street. This is where the fried chicken from Out Fry comes from, but also the burgers from Dirty Vegan Burger. Lately, we even had the right to Bo Bun from Mission Saigon, but they seem to have disappeared from the Deliveroo platform for some time. However, TASTER is not the only one to offer these ghost signs. For some time now, if we pay a little attention, we have noticed that certain “classic” Strasbourg restaurants already present on delivery platforms are taking advantage of their cuisine to boost their sales, by developing a new brand, often dedicated to a single type of product.
Let’s take The Poutinists, on Deliveroo. This brand is one of the few in Strasbourg to offer the famous Canadian specialty in all its forms. A logo featuring a moose head, Canadian flags everywhere… Yes, except that The Poutinistsit is actually La Frituur which is at the origin, the franchise of Belgian friteries landed in Strasbourg a few years ago. Same kitchen, same staff, same expenses… But two very distinct brands, offered from the same kitchen of their restaurant at 8 Rue de la Krutenau and 92 Grand Rue.
The same goes for the sandwiches of Philly Club who actually come out of Burger Club, the bowls of Pokai coming out of the house Sushi Shop, Granny Salads that we owe to Bagelsteinor the Spaetzeilein spaetzle dishes that come to us from Chez l’Oncle Freddy
“We will try to resist this phenomenon with the tools at our disposal. “, according to the City
For Joël Steffen, Deputy in charge of trade, dark kitchens are completely opposite to the consumption models carried by the City today, not to mention the concerns that relate more to working conditions: ” These are methods that necessarily raise questions when people work locked in kitchens hidden in the city, hidden, uberized, precarious. We have a very cloudy visibility on the pace imposed on the employees who work there, in respect of allergens. When you cook two or three different kinds of food in the same space, there are bound to be imperfections. We will try to resist this phenomenon with the tools at our disposal. “.
The municipality says it is attentive to this growing phenomenon. Not only are there fears linked to the congestion of the public highway by the crowds of delivery people, but also real questions of ethics and values, as Joël Steffen explains: “ Socially, these phenomena contribute to changing consumption trends towards a triptych: delivery – consumption at home – leisure. It is the opposite of a friendly city, of sharing, meeting and living together. The dark kitchens are preparing a generation of young chefs to lock themselves in the kitchen without customer contact, sometimes at a hellish pace. Also, Strasbourg tends to become a soft city and the myriad of unscrupulous delivery people who have imposed themselves in a few years does not go with the configuration of the city., its small intersecting streets that mix the means of transport »
An economic opportunity for some restaurateurs, but fears shared by all
Criticized for their “dehumanized” model or considered as unfair competition with classic restaurants, dark kitchens are however more and more numerous and are emerging for multiple reasons. For Ozgur Ucmaz for example (at the head of Burger Club, Philly Club, Kebs Baba), it is the ” Cherry on the cake », a way to optimize your sales and highlight certain products on your menu: “In our case, developing a Dark kitchen allowed me to promote a product that we felt was worth the detour, but which did not benefit from the desired visibility. (the Philly Club Sandwich). Today, we try as much as possible to make a single product, that’s what works. When there are too many choices in a restaurant, people often go out “.
His dark kitchen also allows him to make the most of his payroll. : “ Our turnover has dropped compared to when we handled deliveries internally. Today we are dependent on delivery platforms, we have no choice but to adapt to them. We, for example, make homemade fries, multiplying the signs in the same kitchen allows me to keep someone who peels the potatoes, because I have enough requests to afford it ! »
If Ozgur has adapted to the market by developing a dark kitchen itself, it nevertheless remains mixed on the phenomenon: “If you want to know what I mean, whether it’s dark kitchens, or more broadly delivery platforms, they are killing our profession. Deliveroo is creating its own hubs everywhere, where they will rent space from restaurant owners and take 40-50% of their earnings. We are becoming slaves to it. When you see that some restaurateurs make 80% of their turnover just with deliveries, it’s delusional “.
And to add: With the Covid, we entered a new market where marketing rules everything. You can definitely pay to be placed at the top of the list on the platforms, you have to take care of your image. It has become a real business, we talk more about catering. All the big dark groups that open today are marketing bosses above all, that’s why the quality is often not there. “.
Same story for Nicolas Barral, chef of the Acerola restaurant in Strasbourg. For him, the concept is clearly opposed to his vision of the profession : “It would be damn sad if dark kitchens were the future of catering, I see that as a dismantling of our profession. For me, it’s more like a factory or a service offer than real catering. Catering is not just cooking, it is contact, encounters, pleasure, exchange. There’s none of that in the dark kitchens, I find it hard to understand how anyone would want to work there as a cook. “.