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Dark kitchens: are they really so spooky?

I really like food. I also tend to be lazy when at all possible. It therefore shouldn’t surprise anyone that I consider myself a delivery app connoisseur.

Juicy beef burger with melted cheese, tomato, lettuce and onion

This story began on one particularly normal weeknight of gluttony. I was scrolling through my current delivery app of choice – Deliveroo (RIP) – when I noticed that a plethora of new restaurants had surfaced out of nowhere.

My initial emotion was excitement. “Look at all these new excuses to not get off the couch”, I thought.

I quickly became suspicious however, Surely, this influx of burgers, seafood, pizza, schnitzels, and other takeaway favourites couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?

Indeed, the menus of the new joints were eerily similar, and after digging deeper, they all shared the same address. Upon typing this address into Google Maps, I located the culprit – a very real cafe in a nearby suburb. A cafe that was running dozens of different ‘brands’ on the apps.

These brands, I later learned, are known as dark kitchens.

And so, I did what any decent journalist would do – I contacted an expert. David Mallon is the Director of Future Food, a food and hospitality consultancy located in Victoria. I sat down with David and asked him all about the dark kitchen phenomenon.

Portrait of David Mallon in a tieless suit
David Mallon, Director of Future Foods (photo by Laura Manariti)
Q: So, what are dark kitchens?

A: Dark kitchens are essentially kitchens that have no customer-facing interface, where food is produced and then delivered by food delivery aggregators such as Uber. Essentially, these spaces are like commercial kitchens, producing food for speedy delivery and the ever-rising demand for food delivered to the home.

Q: I personally only noticed dark kitchens a year or so ago. Why do you feel they have increased in popularity recently?

A: Dark kitchens have been around for some time actually, but probably a lot longer in the US, Canada and Europe. I’ve been at Future Food since 2017, and ultimately they were around well before I started here.

I think there’s possibly a greater prevalence now simply because COVID accelerated that market growth. We were trapped in our houses for significant periods of time, and these facilities that were already in existence went into overdrive and a lot of brands started using them.

Pizza with ham, tomato and cheese on a chopping board
Q: So, what benefits do dark kitchens provide to businesses? Does your consultancy recommend them to your clients?

A: Yeah ultimately, there are consumer benefits and there are operator benefits.

If you’re looking at the operator benefits, it’s a greater economy of scale. So, if you have an existing business that is already doing intake and you’ve got a product that is well-known as opposed to a commodity like a fish n’ chips that you can get anywhere, you can increase your reach.

There are other benefits too, like less staffing costs. If there are several restaurants operating out of one dark kitchen, you’re maximising the labour across multiple revenue streams from different brands. Your cost-per-meal is less because there’s more throughput from other businesses.

You’ve also got the ability to test new concepts. You can use a dark kitchen as a testing ground and test new items out on the market without having to do it in your restaurant or cafe.

A bowl of golden fried chicken with a container of sauce in the centre
Q: And what about the benefits to the consumer?

A: From the consumer side, the reality is that none of this would be happening without the demand.

When we’re talking about Canberra for example, there’s a high student population with some great unis. Some of these brands are targeting the uni demographic. If students weren’t using them, they wouldn’t be there.

Also, Canberra doesn’t have the high-density that you would experience in Sydney or Melbourne, and so some of these brands, you would never have seen if it had not been for dark kitchens.

There are brands that are expressly created for dark kitchens as well. As we’re fond of saying here, convenience is king. Being able to have diverse food delivered to your door without a second thought is pretty powerful for customers. I know Canberrans love jumping in their car to go anywhere, because walking around Canberra is bloody hard! Why not make that process easier?

A potential downfall is that while the dark kitchen is a good concept, you are certainly beholden to delivery platforms. Using a Mexican-style product as an example, it comes out fresh and hot, it’s just been made. But when you translate that to delivery, those ingredients in particular, the heat doesn’t hold very long. So, you wrap it in foil and send it out, but if the delivery driver isn’t efficient, it gets cold and loses that quality.

Close-up of nachos covered in sour cream, salsa and jalapenos
Q: Finally, given that some restaurants can have dozens of dark kitchens on the delivery apps, do you feel there’s an ethical need for consumers to be made aware that perhaps the brands they are ordering from are just extensions of the same business?

A: Ethically, I don’t think so, because ultimately, when you’re ordering from an app, as a hospitality professional, I’ll do my research, I’ll know who’s got a dark kitchen. And if I see a concept that I know for a fact isn’t in the area physically, then I know it’s coming out of a dark kitchen. At least I hope it is, as opposed to being driven from half-way across town.

When we talk about brands or menus being produced out of one kitchen, I think we should touch on the point of quality. So, when we go into these places, they’re covered, in the ACT’s case, under the ACT Food Act, and federally under the FSANZ Food Standards Code. So, they’re like any other kitchen, subject to the same tests and rigours, and they have to be lodged with the local councils. So, from that safety perspective, I don’t think there’s any issues.

From a consumer perspective, I think my point would be that as long as the quality is essentially the same, I don’t think there’s a massive issue with it. Going back to one of my earlier points, perhaps some of the kitchens don’t have the volume of people to set up a ‘bricks and mortar’, and so the only way they can potentially reach the market is to go through a dark kitchen.

As you did, I came across a dark kitchen in the western suburbs of Melbourne that I didn’t know existed. When I was doing my research, I found out they were doing at least 12 brands out of there. But from what I could see when I went on the apps to have a look at what the customer experience was like, it was certainly presented as an online brand. I wasn’t confused that it might be a ‘bricks and mortar’. I think people are getting savvy enough now that they can recognise these things.