Covid drives rise in 'shadow kitchens' - where is your takeaway from?
- Credit: copyright ARCHANT 2017
Restaurants are turning to virtual kitchens to expand and adapt during Covid, leading to a raft of new takeaways diners may not know are run by familiar brands.
Sometimes called ghost or dark kitchens, they don't have a set space for eating in, often share a kitchen with another business and generally focus on online deliveries or collections.
There are 200 listed on delivery website Deliveroo in the east of England, and a spokesperson said since March 2020 the number nationwide has doubled, up to 7,000.
Supporters say they allow restaurants to try new menus and concepts with fewer risks and costs, grow their online presence and, during lockdowns, stay afloat.
But a lack of separate food hygiene ratings, confusion over where consumers are actually ordering from and potential impact on independent trade leaves some uneasy.
Several chains around Norwich have set up virtual kitchens, including Frankie and Benny's, which was forced to close dozens of restaurants in summer due to the pandemic.
Using a city centre postcode, on Wednesday there were six virtual kitchens listed on Deliveroo and Just Eat operating from its Riverside home - Stacks, Devonly Pies, Bone Jam, Kick Ass Burritos, Puddo and Bird Box.
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While it is not initially clear, Frankie and Benny's is listed in each address and some of the restaurants' descriptions say they are "a virtual brand of Frankie & Benny's".
But the only food hygiene rating is that of Frankie and Benny's itself, and the only virtual brand listed alongside it is Bird Box.
Virtual kitchens are not limited to chains, though, with several independent restaurants in Norwich setting them up.
Vegan restaurant Erpingham House, based at Tombland, recently set up Chuck Chick, its second virtual kitchen.
Owner Loui Blake said in 2019 they sought to grow their customer base via deliveries, but realised much of their existing menu wasn't suitable and set up Vegan Dough Co, a pizza brand.
"When adapting our menu for delivery, we lost about 60pc of it," he said. "We were comfortable that the quality and consistency would be there with pizza.
"We don't hide that it's Erpingham House, people trust us in terms of the quality and we are quite open that the brands are ours."
They more than doubled the size of their kitchen to cope with increased orders.
"We were aware of that need," he said, "but I think the pressure for people to survive [during the pandemic] has caused people to take this route without really being set up for it."
He said his biggest concern with virtual kitchens was the risk of cross contamination, which he said, for those with allergies and intolerances, could be serious.
He said he'd seen "numerous" examples elsewhere of non-vegan restaurants setting up vegan brands from the same kitchens.
But he said he didn't think chains operating virtual kitchens would have an impact on independents, and said before they took the plunge they'd taken a survey with customers.
"What we found is when people discover a brand, they will look to see what a brand stands for," he said. "With the increase in choice people want to understand who they are buying from, and will see that there isn't a website or a proper logo or Facebook page. Then they tend to avoid them."
Elsewhere, Jorge Santos of Jorge's Portuguese restaurant, on Orford Yard, launched Go Bifanas, focusing on street food, last week.
He said it was important to be honest with customers about the link, and said if it goes well it could pave the way to opening a restaurant with a bricks and mortar home.
"The food in our restaurant is quite difficult to do takeaways with," he said. "We could end up ruining our reputation trying to sell the food we have.
"So created something that is about street food, and we didn't want to sell it through the restaurant because it's not the food we usually do.
"If things work out, when we reopen we will find some other space we where can continue."
In summer, Pizza Express launched Mac and Wings virtual kitchen, while both Posh Kebabs and Bamboo Bay are registered to Unit 2 at Timberhill Terrace, the home of Cocina.
Norwich City Council said its food hygiene inspectors reviewed alternative trading names at inspections, but that, from a food hygiene perspective, virtual brands fall under the company that runs them.
A spokesperson for Deliveroo said virtual brands enabled restaurants to reach new customers with less risk and cut down on waste, enabling chefs to use the same ingredients for dishes on different menus.
They said the fact that the vast majority are "created from a partner's current kitchen but under new branding" made it clear where customers were ordering from.
"To be clear we have strict food hygiene procedures on the platform." they said. "For example, all our Edition Kitchens are five star hygiene rated by the Food Standards Agency (FSA)."
And Just Eat said it took food safety "extremely seriously".
"All new restaurants wishing to join the platform must be FSA registered, have a [food hygeine] rating of three/a pass in Scotland or be awaiting inspection."
We also contacted The Restaurant Group, which owns Frankie and Benny's.
Deliveroo, which originally thrust virtual kitchens into the spotlight, said in December 2019 that it had 2,000 ghost kitchens on its platform, a growth of 150pc in 2019 alone.
It now operates Editions kitchens, large spaces housing dozens of kitchens. Restaurants pay commission on each order but premises costs are covered by Deliveroo.
The nearest Editions is in Cambridge, though Deliveroo says it has plans to introduce more around the UK.
In an ideal world, we'd all be fully aware of where we spent our money.
But life doesn't always allow us that time, and when grabbing a takeaway for dinner, plenty of us won't do our research.
The debate about virtual brands is interesting. The fears over cross-contamination and keeping standards high are legitimate.
And any concerns that local traders are losing out to chains should be voiced.
But for some traders, virtual brands are a useful tool for innovation and growth with less risk.
More could be done to make clear when brands are virtual kitchens, but we must also take some responsibility.
If we are keen to support independent businesses, those extra few minutes to double check who we are supporting is worthwhile.