Most of us, at some point, have ordered takeaway meals to be delivered to our homes. And it’s a common sight in cities to see delivery drivers zipping about on mopeds with food boxes on the back.
We assume the food that arrives originated from the restaurant where we placed the order. But increasingly, that may not be the case.
With the advent of so-called cloud kitchens – also known as ‘ghost kitchens’ or ‘dark kitchens’ – these dishes could be prepared, cooked and despatched from a location that’s not physically connected to the restaurant at all.
The concept has been gathering pace for several years. But with the spread of Covid-19, its relevance – as a way for businesses to operate – has increased dramatically.
Here we explore what cloud kitchens are, how they work and why they’re rapidly becoming an essential arm of the foodservice industry, now and for the future.
Different models for different needs
Cloud kitchens are typically commercial kitchens that prepare and cook food purely for delivery, not to be eaten on the premises.
In the ‘traditional’ model, a brand owns or rents a space where its chefs work and uses its own or third-party order and delivery systems. It may also have a takeaway option where customers can wait to collect their food.
Another model is the multi-brand cloud kitchen where several different operators work out of the same space, usually with separate work areas but with some shared facilities like storerooms and fridges.
And in the most recent addition to the line-up, restaurants are using them to outsource as much of the preparation and cooking processes as they wish, before applying the finishing touches in-house.
Brands that operate physical restaurants may use separate cloud kitchens to serve delivery orders more efficiently. Cloud kitchens can also serve ‘virtual restaurants’ which exist only online.
According to Euromonitor International, there are currently over 7,500 cloud kitchens in China, more than 3,500 in India and around 1,500 in the US.
The Covid effect
With companies like Deliveroo and Uber Eats gaining traction, the industry is seeing a rise in demand for deliveries and, in response, the concept of cloud kitchens was already growing pre-Covid.
This demand has increased dramatically over the last year or so as lockdowns forced restaurants to close. With customer footfall disappearing practically overnight, shifting to a cloud kitchen model meant restaurants could keep their operations running.
While initially this was to offer a takeout or delivery service, many operators are seeing how this model can add value to their business in all sorts of ways.
The many benefits
The advent of cloud kitchens has allowed businesses to ‘do’ delivery and takeaway in a cost-efficient way to respond to the rising demand. And while Covid-19 has accelerated this shift, it’s not the only reason why restaurants are showing increasing interest in the concept.
Food service is an industry that has high overheads, so cloud kitchens allow restaurants to avoid the expense of renting a dining space and instead focus solely on the food, also eliminating the need for front-of-house staff.
The model is highly flexible. Cloud kitchens don’t need to be in town centres or shopping malls where space can be tight but rents high. They can operate from anywhere and are often located on industrial estates.
The approach can also suit businesses when they are starting out, testing a new market or expanding a more established offering. Creating a new commercial kitchen requires significant investment. But using the services of a cloud kitchen can reduce set-up and operating costs considerably.
Why does this matter to Unilever?
Part of our business – Unilever Food Solutions (UFS) – supplies products and services to companies in the foodservice industry such as restaurants, hotel chains and large-scale caterers. Through a global network of employees, which includes over 300 professional chefs, we help these companies source ingredients, create recipes and optimise menus, as well as providing chef training and support.
So we’re using our extensive experience and R&D expertise – especially when it comes to food safety and brand and product development – as these companies move to cloud kitchen operations.
Preparing, cooking and presenting food for takeaway and delivery is quite different from serving food in a restaurant where, as soon as the dish is made, it’s carried from the kitchen to the customer’s table. Creating that same dish to deliver across a city has several important implications.
The food needs to remain stable, fresh and warm for longer. So we help design dishes and ingredients that, when the box is opened, look and taste as they would in the restaurant. That’s not straightforward when you consider these boxes can be in transit for some time and sped around streets on the back of a bike.
As UFS Marketing Manager Yulia Zotova says: “Cloud kitchens are usually very data-driven. They constantly optimise the menu. And their success depends on kitchen efficiency as well as the right packaging, logistics and dish presentation. Therefore UFS can play even a bigger role with our culinary expertise, HoReCa [hotel, restaurant, café] and diners’ insights, and supply of tasty and high-quality food ingredients.”
Food safety is an important aspect to professional catering. During Covid, there’s a lot more pressure to get it right. We consult and train chefs in all aspects of food safety and hygiene, so customers are reassured that the food has come from a clean, safe kitchen environment.
Aside from chefmanship and safety knowledge, we bring a huge amount of experience and expertise in everything from nutrition to sustainability, food waste to packaging.
We’re also equipped with a portfolio of purpose-led brands. This can be an important asset for cloud kitchens to leverage – especially for virtual or digital restaurants – as they need to entice consumers to their dishes. People are often attracted to names that they know and trust.
Success depends on kitchen efficiency as well as the right packaging, logistics and dish presentation. UFS can play a role with our culinary expertise, insights and supply of tasty and high-quality food ingredients.Yulia Zotova, Unilever Food Solutions Marketing Manager
The proof of the pudding
We work with cloud kitchens in all 70 countries where UFS operates.
For instance, in Germany we have partnered with Vertical Food, the country’s leading cloud kitchen platform, which operates eight digital restaurants in Berlin, producing dishes across multiple locations. We’re helping expand its reach, focusing initially on four major cities where up to 50 digital restaurants are planned, as well as developing new delivery infrastructure and formats.
Last summer, we launched Tea House by Tazo in Canada – an at-home café experience delivering tea-based beverages to people’s doors. We led on creating the recipes and brand experience. This was executed by virtual kitchen company Cloud Kitchens’ Brands. Delivery was through Uber Eats, DoorDash and SkipTheDishes. The pilot was a huge success and is now being executed in Walmart.
In Belgium, we’re working with cloud kitchen concept Casper in its first location in Ghent. We provide a range of products from our Vegetarian Butcher portfolio, as well as specific ingredients and flavours.
The trend is set to continue
It’s no surprise that takeaways and deliveries have seen a boost in demand because of Covid. But we don’t believe that the demand will drop when restrictions lift. In fact, we believe that cloud kitchens are still very much at the start of a journey and are an important part of making Unilever fit for the future.
As Arnaud Leleu, Unilever’s Global Customer Development Director, concludes: “The concept is built on agility, cost-efficient solutions for the growing demand of delivery and takeaway, and new food experiences. These all suggest that, as a channel, it will grow fast. In fact, Euromonitor predicts that cloud kitchens could create a $1 trillion global opportunity by 2030. We’re extremely keen – and very well placed – to reinforce our position in this channel.”