When I went to collect my order from a Chinese takeaway in east London, I wasn’t expecting to find a pristine production line and speakers blasting noughties dance tunes. And I definitely wasn’t expecting to get lost in a maze of industrial units, hidden under the railway arches near a Zone 2 tube station.
Google Maps told me: ‘You’ve arrived at your destination’, but all I saw was a commercial wheelie bin overflowing with flattened cardboard boxes and a stream of bright orange Just Eat drivers going in and out of a door with no signage.
I followed suit and sheepishly entered: volcanic heat smacked me in the face. The stench of deep fryer oil and sweet and sour assured me it was the right place, but it was a long way from any takeaway I’d ever seen. Everything felt so calm, serene and ordered. Where was the shouting in the kitchen? Where was the chaos dealing with drunken late-night customers?
A member of staff nodded at me and got out his phone to play DJ Sammy’s ‘Heaven’ through the speakers, followed by an intense Chinese opera dance mix. A machine was endlessly churning out receipts for online orders and brown paper bags were lined up under heat lamps, ready to go. Within minutes, I was handed my order of ribs, sweet and sour pork, prawn toast and spring rolls, ready to take home.
This was a ‘dark kitchen’, a faceless, unacknowledged space catering only for the takeaway and delivery crowd. Dark kitchens, ghost kitchens, cloud kitchens, virtual kitchens: whatever you like to call them, delivery-only kitchens are hiding in every nook and cranny of London. Tucked into industrial estates, under railway arches, even in shipping containers, they can usually be spotted by clusters of mopeds and bikes waiting dutifully to pick up your overpriced burger and fries.
Billed by some as the future of takeaways and by others as the death of the restaurant as we know it, dark kitchens are genius at best, ominous at worst. With lockdowns exposing London’s addiction to takeaway apps like Just Eat, Deliveroo and Uber Eats, the dark kitchen empire has crept across the capital. But what exactly are they, and are they as sinister as their name suggests?
What are dark kitchens?
Imagine a restaurant. Now take away the tables, customers, waiting staff, front of house and till, and replace all of the above with an app. You’re left with a professional-standard catering space, and that’s all dark kitchens are. They’re designed exclusively for efficiency – to cook, pack, and deliver your hangover food as quickly as possible. The idea is they help brands reach areas further away from their IRL restaurants, while allowing existing sites to not become overstretched.
One of the largest suppliers of dark kitchens in London is Deliveroo, who launched ‘Deliveroo Editions’ rentable kitchens in 2017. Now, brands like Dishoom, Rosa’s Thai, and Five Guys are all on board – as well as Chinatown dim sum restaurant Tao Tao Ju.
‘It can be an opportunity to enter an area and test out what people think of the food, rather than opening a full restaurant,’ says Libby Andrews, marketing director at Pho Restaurant. Pho opened its first Deliveroo Edition at the end of 2020 and now runs four across London. According to Andrews, it’s the exact ‘same process’ as restaurant orders, just ‘streamlined for delivery’. But even if your delivered meal tastes the same as it would in a restaurant with tables, napkins, and printed bills, the space where it’s made looks very different. Dark kitchens are more akin to industrial-scale supermarket kitchens, lurking in the corners of the city, out of sight and out of mind.
Deliveroo isn’t the only guy in the game. Food Stars is the largest operator of dark kitchens in the UK, with over 100 sites across London and the surrounding areas – including Battersea, Bethnal Green, Chiswick, Kentish Town and Waterloo. Start-up Karma Kitchens has billed itself as the company here to rid dark kitchens of their bad rep, with plans to open sites in Camden and Bermondsey on top of their current Wood Green and Hackney locations. And that’s not to mention privately-run dark kitchens used by independent companies. The kitchen we visited is just one example of somewhere that used to be a fully-fledged takeaway but has now lost its shopfront. Because who needs physical signage if you have 4.5 stars on a food delivery app?
What do dark kitchens look like?
Just last week, Camden residents raised concerns about a dark kitchen site in Swiss Cottage that has been used by Deliveroo since 2017. Complaints accounting to around 1,800 alleged breaches of conditions over a nine-month period were submitted to Camden Council, leading the council to turn down Deliveroo’s request for permanent planning permission. Then, in December last year, people living opposite ten dark kitchens adjacent to Archbishop’s Park sent a petition to Lambeth Council to call for their closure, after receiving abuse from delivery drivers and finding raw meat dumped in the street.
It’s easy enough to see where dark kitchens get their name. Many operate in prefabricated buildings, often with a lack of natural light and ventilation. Adverse weather can affect delivery drivers and the kitchens themselves can be prone to overheating or freezing.
But according to Richard Franks, managing director at burrito chain Chilango, all five of their dark kitchen sites are like ‘little villages’ with multiple hospitality businesses working beside each other. ‘They have breakout and communal areas, and our staff will exchange food with other restaurants and have a different staff meal a week,’ says Franks. ‘They have dance music Thursdays, and a lot of the workers go out clubbing together [after their shift].’
Liam O’Keefe, brand director at burger restaurant Bleecker, which runs four Deliveroo Editions across the city, also insists that their kitchens aren’t as ‘dark’ as the name sounds. ‘Although staff aren’t seeing customers, they have a community where they’re sharing food with other restaurants on a weekly basis, so it’s actually a more collaborative environment than a restaurant,’ O’Keefe says.
Still, running a dark kitchen doesn’t come without its obstacles – many firms have had to put a positive spin on the name to recruit workers. ‘Staffing levels in the hospitality industry have been tough over the last eight months,’ says Franks. ‘Attracting people to come and work for us in a dark kitchen has been a challenge. That’s why we call our delivery-only kitchens “vibrant kitchens”.’
While no two kitchens are the same, the scene at the east London takeaway I visited seemed pretty far from vibrant: it felt like its only purpose was to rush food out to people. Maybe that’s why so many hospitality businesses are still unwilling to talk openly about their use of dark kitchens – they’re a far cry from the happy hum of a packed restaurant, or even the casual chat of a traditional takeaway.
Time Out reached out to several independent brands and larger chains that use dark kitchens for inclusion in this article, but they refused to speak to us. For now, it seems that London’s dark kitchens will remain very much shrouded in mystery.