The year is 2022. The virus has mutated again, and the vaccine that offered hope of an end to the rolling lockdowns and a crumbling economy looks ineffective. Scientific communities are scrambling.
A chef wakes at 5am and quietly readies himself for the day ahead. He drinks half a cup of coffee, trying not wake his sleeping wife. He envies her peaceful slumber, but he steps out into a fading city, driving past boarded-up retail outlets on his way to an industrial estate on the outskirts.
Chef is clocking into a 10-hour shift in a ghost kitchen. It’s a tough gig. No security, no benefits, no insurance. Just an endless list of health & safety, PPE and boxing up meals to go. Everything is done through the app, from notifying the company you’re en route to work for, to requesting a toilet break.
He works in a cubicle, alone, laughing with his colleagues through Perspex dividers. Through his earpiece he receives instructions form the overseer. Chef is on a production line, so never sees the finished dish, just passes it along to the next stage, and repeat. Chef works hard. As hard as he can. He needs the money, and to be honest, he’s lucky to have a job at all. They’re talking about bringing in robot arms and cutting back on staff. There’s still the Universal Income, but inflation has made even the basics unaffordable.
Chef hears of secret underground independent restaurants popping up in different locations. He dreams of working in a real kitchen, making real food, for real people. He resolves to sign up to the movement...
It’s not hyperbolic to imagine a near-future dystopia for restaurants and restaurant workers. What has happened to the industry in 2020 has been devastating. What happens next year – a return to how things were, or a slow descent into permanent change - only time will tell. The ghost kitchen, though, is here to stay, for better or for worse. It already has its own Wikipedia page. A string of shadowy organisations are operating out-of-sight, to provide meals for delivery, to customers they will never know. That die has already been cast.
As independent restaurants struggle to stay afloat, the pandemic has so-far benefited the larger, well-capitalised restaurant chains. This crisis has bolstered inequality across the board, and the hospitality sector, which has been at the heart of this crisis from the beginning, reflects that perfectly.
Independent restaurateurs have endured months of sleepless nights, wondering how they are going to provide for their staff, or worrying about how the most vulnerable in their community are going to eat. Corporate entities are using the crisis as an opportunity as a land grab for cheap commercial space, labour and market share.
Travis Kalanick, the ousted Uber cofounder, has also pivoted to takeaway, taking the chance to invest $130 million in commercial space to feed the food delivery trend.
Last year Kalanick set up a San Francisco location for CloudKitchens, a start-up that rents commercial space and turns it into shared kitchens for restaurateurs. It’s a venture that hasn’t received a lot of publicity until a recent WSJ article lifted the lid on what looks like a huge play in the hospitality sector under his ominously named City Storage Systems company.
CloudKitchens has been busily acquiring new spaces across the US, along with City Storage Systems’ 2018 acquisition of FoodStars, a UK-based Dark Kitchen start-up with 100 locations and with designs on the Indian market.
Kalanick's CloudKitchens benefited from $400 million investment by Saudi Arabia's sovereign-wealth fund in January 2019, in what was the first known financial backing by the country since the murder of the American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Mom & Pop restaurants continue to succumb to the ravages of Covid-19, and the US National Restaurant Association reports that 100,000 restaurants in the country have permanently closed, or will do so by the end of 2020. Just as in the financial crisis of 2008 saw investors move quickly to snap up distressed properties, the same is happening with the restaurant market.
This week, the 29-year-old CEO of Odermark, Alex Canter, announced that he was building a “decentralised ghost kitchen” and managed to secure $120 million funding round from SoftBank’s latest Vision Fund.
“We have uncovered an opportunity to help drive more orders into restaurants through this offering we have called Nextbite,” Canter said. “Nextbite is a portfolio of delivery-only restaurant brands that exist only on UberEats, DoorDash and Postmates.”
Shutters are pulled down on dining rooms around the world, but crisis is an opportunity for those with time on their side, and the capital to invest.
As a second wave hits Europe, and the dreaded lockdown returns across the continent, again it is independent restaurants that - having invested in PPE and ever-more inventive outdoor dining solutions for winter - will bear the brunt of it all.
This is a bleak winter ahead for the independent restaurant, of that there is no doubt. Many are clinging onto the hope that spring will bring a recovery for the businesses that manage to survive.
If the kitchen is the beating heart of a restaurant, then the dining room is its soul. Without both in play, can we really call it a restaurant?
At a certain point diners will have to decide what kind of future they want. Restaurants serve an important social function. They are where we celebrate life’s events, where we court our lovers and where we make real connections. If we lose them, our world will be worse off. By all means support we should support our local restaurants with take-out orders during the pandemic. But remember, as soon as we are able to, we must get back to dining in. The alternative is just too scary.