Dark Kitchen - The restaurant industries consider their new normal?

Anis Dadu and Aasiyah Bhana consider the issues

If you’re in the food industry or had been planning on opening a restaurant pre-pandemic you’ll have heard the phrase dark kitchen. This refers to a business model that’s risen in popularity over the last few years but accelerated into the main stream with the recent lockdowns. 

It may take a while before we start doing things like we did before, and it is already clear that some habits will have changed for good. A romantic outing without the kids at our favourite restaurant turned into a takeout for the whole family delivered to the door during the lockdown. It might not be romantic, but it might be the new normal, at least for now.

So, what is going on behind the scenes? Restaurant and bar operators need to think on their feet. While help is on hand in the form of rate relief, government holidays, and CBILS loans, it may not be enough to support struggling businesses that are not ready to make changes, and it’s hard to see when trading levels will return to pre-lockout levels. Pubs offer take out and / or click and collect to survive. Others sell fresh produce from the parking lot to maintain their suppliers.

But what about the future. The outlook for the hospitality industry is bleak, with gradual openness and social distancing will mean some businesses simply cannot serve up enough blankets to make it work. The “all you can eat” model is particularly susceptible to challenges – with top locations in entertainment and movie venues, they rely on high footfall and fast turnaround time.

Some companies had already greeted the increased demand for door-to-door delivery (call it customer laziness if you will) and turned to producing food in “dark kitchens”, also known as “cloud kitchens”. or “ghosts”. These are kitchens that are largely contained in commercial units, sometimes prefabricated structures, located in industrial areas, outside city centres. They do not have a showcase and do not allow customers to procure food but are only hubs for the production and distribution of hot dishes. There are now even services providers for dark kitchens, Dephna provides commercial kitchen space, cold storage and even some delivery services.

Businesses have many advantages in managing a dark kitchen over a restaurant or take out that depends on footfall and parking. Rent and cheaper rates, more parking for workers and delivery people (especially after hours when other workers in industrial areas have returned home). It also means that businesses can reach areas further away from cities and town centres (as a person living in a rural setting, you cannot underestimate the benefits of delivery services – despite the assurances when we saw the house delivered by Domino – they do not).

So what are the issues dark kitchen operators should be aware of when considering this as an option:

  • Usage planning – Most small independent commercial kitchens (ie dark kitchens), configured primarily for food production with sale and delivery by third parties like Deliveroo, will likely fall into the class of. use B1 (c). As surprising as it may sound, preparing food without selling to public visitors is an industrial process. However, be careful, larger operations with high volume delivery facilities have seen their planning use defined as sui generis “commercial kitchens and delivery hub”. Always get professional advice.
  • Building operation – Always remember that the installation of external installations such as exhaust ducts, flues and air-cooled condenser units will require a building permit (unless it is of a scale in generally permitted development rights). You must also comply with relevant building regulations;
  • Odours and vapours – Think carefully about how you are going to reduce odours and vapours. Bad odours could be a legal nuisance. The last thing you need is for the local council’s environmental health manager to knock on your door following complaints from residents. It may also affect your planning position under use class B1 (c) and / or any required planning permission (if applicable).
  • Hygiene and food safety standards – Just because it is a dark kitchen does not mean the lights are out on hygiene and food safety standards. These will remain enforceable by the local council’s environmental health offices and Food Standards Agency
  • Sales and delivery– No doubt a key part of any successful dark kitchen is its sales and delivery of the food prepared. Strongly consider how this will be operated. For example, will deliveries be by car or bicycle? Will it use third-party sales and pick up services like Deliveroo? If so, how much do they charge? How will food pick ups be managed? Remember high volume delivery facilities may charge the planning use.

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