Remember the state of your kitchen when you tried jumping on the pancake cereal trend? What about your lethal brush with cloud bread and pesto eggs? No? Too lazy to whip up some of the drool-worthy recipes you’ve stumbled across on TikTok? Don’t worry, the platform itself has got you covered as it plans to dip its gen Z toes into the food delivery industry.
Partnering with Virtual Dining Concepts (VDC) and Grubhub, TikTok is launching a delivery-only service that will cook some of the trendiest recipes on the platform for you to order and enjoy. Dubbed ‘TikTok Kitchen’, the menu will be based on viral food trends including baked feta pasta, which was ranked as the most-searched dish of 2021 by Google. The opening menu is also set to feature pasta chips (pasta shapes that are coated with cheese and air-fried), smash burgers and corn ribs (made from coating sections of corn with spices and Parmesan).
According to VDC’s co-founder Robert Earl, the menu will change quarterly to keep up with the dynamic nature of trends on the platform. “If a dish starts going viral, there will probably be opportunities to add it to menus,” he told Bloomberg. With 3.3 billion views and counting on #cloudbread, it remains to be seen whether such ‘evergreen’ food trends will translate into permanent offerings on TikTok Kitchen.
Nevertheless, Earl said the prices for such viral recipes will be “comparable to other Virtual Dining Concept brands.” Founded in 2018, VDC has successfully collaborated with famous clients including Guy Fieri, Steve Harvey, Mariah Carey and Tyga. However, one of the brand’s notable partnerships has been with American YouTuber and philanthropist MrBeast, aka Jimmy Donaldson. According to Bloomberg, MrBeast Burger, the resultant delivery-only fast food chain, has been a breakout hit since its iconic launch in 2020. “MrBeast sold 1 million burgers in three months and there are now 1,500 locations in the US, Canada and the UK,” the publication noted—with prices starting at $6.99 for the burgers.
While TikTok Kitchen’s price range is yet to be announced officially, Earl forecasted its success as on par with MrBeast’s virtual restaurant business. “Look, you have a platform with a billion viewers monthly who are constantly engaged, as the numbers show,” he said. “It’s the first time there’s a brand like this out there—an audience of hundreds of millions of people.”
So how exactly will TikTok Kitchen work and how can we, as consumers, taste-test the latest trends on the platform? Set to launch in March 2022, TikTok Kitchen will operate out of existing restaurants—including US-based chains owned by Earl himself like Buca di Beppo and Bertucci’s. This concept is what’s termed a “ghost kitchen.” But unlike some companies in the said business, VDC’s restaurants are not based out of independent, trailer-converted kitchens in parking lots. Instead, TikTok Kitchen will leverage a restaurant’s existing kitchen and employees who will be provided with the necessary training, food packaging and viral recipes of choice. All deliveries will then be made via Grubhub.
Although 300 locations across the US are planned for its launch in March, TikTok and VDC plan to expand the service to around 1,000 restaurants by the end of 2022.
Which brings us to yet another dilemma when it comes to monetising trends across social media. How does TikTok plan on crediting the creators of these viral recipes? In a press release, the company stated that it plans to devote its profits to the creators and in turn, would support promising culinary talents on the platform altogether. “Creators will be receiving credit for dishes within the menu and will be featured prominently throughout [the] promotion,” TikTok spokesperson Elena Saavedra explained in a statement to The Verge. However, Saavedra also clarified how the service is a “campaign to bring TikTok foods to fans and not a venture into the restaurant business.”
This essentially means that the company perceives TikTok Kitchen as another marketing effort on its part rather than a full-fledged, long-term business. For Earl, on the other hand, the partnership is an investment into TikTok itself. “I’m doing it as a business, TikTok are doing it for the development of that category,” Earl told Bloomberg. Although TikTok Kitchen may not be here to stay, our personal ones can finally take a well-deserved break from all the havoc we wreak in the name of a DIY food trend. For a while, at least.
It’s Saturday evening, you’re hanging (badly) and you’re thumbing (aimlessly) through Delieveroo looking for a savoury treat to restore your sense of wellbeing temporarily. Maybe it’s a bit more like Saturday at 2 p.m., but we’ll say it’s evening so you won’t feel as bad about ordering a takeaway that early in the day.
Burger Bytes, a restaurant with the slogan “Travel back in time with these burgers, French fries, and onion rings—classics that are sure to satisfy your hunger, and your appetite for simpler times!” catches your attention for its ratio of simplicity, fried food with a fizzy drink selection. The location indicates it’s in Thames Circle Parking Lot, East London, but what if I told you that Burger Bytes’s logo and menu existed solely beneath your fingertips on your phone screen, rather than at its physical location? Burger Bytes, with its chirpy, pun-filled, internet-influenced name, isn’t a traditional restaurant; it’s a ghost kitchen—one of many. But what are ghost kitchens and how will the new phenomenon affect the future of dining?
Ghost kitchens are defined as cooking facilities with no sit-in eating area, in other words, a facility set up to prepare delivery-only meals. Though this slow but steady trend has been growing only since 2017, according to Micheal Schaefer, Euromonitor’s global food and beverage lead, ghost kitchens are predicted to globally create a £797 billion market by 2030.
According to Technomic, in the first two quarters of 2018, third-party delivery service sales such as Delieveroo came to a total of £3.9 billion, jumping up 55 per cent from 2017. As fast-casual dining and delivery services have skyrocketed exponentially in recent years, more and more brick and mortar restaurants have been extending their services to third-party apps such as GrubHub in the US or Deliveroo in the UK.
Citing data from The Financial Times, 60 per cent of the price of a Starbucks latte is designed to cover rent and staff costs. Delivery-only restaurants, therefore, could result in a cheaper dining experience for provider and customer. Compared to a traditional restaurant, ghost kitchens minimise start-up cost and risk. Digital restaurants that exist solely online can easily mutate to fit customer reception of its menu items, or even change its brand entirely overnight.
Without interior design to consider, these ghost kitchens are menu and delivery-orientated. When Uber Eats and Deliveroo first launched virtual restaurants in 2017, they took into consideration which food categories would work best in certain neighbourhoods dependent on surrounding demographics. These data analytics ensured popularity and profitability, creating kitchens from and to follow algorithms.
According to Forbes, about 26 per cent of all restaurants fail in their first year. While ghost kitchens do appear to be an easy way into the restaurant industry for an entrepreneur, it should be noted that not only independent establishments or individuals have been engaging with this new business model.
Large entertainment and food conglomerates such as Chuck E. Cheese in the US or McDonald’s in the UK have launched virtual restaurants of their own, competing with smaller start-ups such as Burger Bytes. In October 2019, for instance, McDonald’s opened its first ‘dark’ kitchen in London’s Hanworth neighbourhood. A McDonald’s spokesman told Property Week that the move was “part of a wider trial to test different restaurant formats.” Property Week also noted that Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, purchased 100 ghost kitchen spaces in March 2019, intending to rent them out to fast food companies. While it was unclear whether this Hanworth McDonald’s location was acquired from Kalanick, an implicit connection between these different aspects of the gig economy can be made.
While cost and risk are mitigated by ghost kitchens, many are critical of trading physical architecture for digital establishments. One restauranteur interviewed for a piece on the phenomenon by The New Yorker stated that while he had thought about using third-party delivery apps in the past, the charges were too high to consider. He added, “People in restaurants work so hard, and margins are so slim. It’s an implicit class thing: blue-collar workers, but the margins are going to software developers and venture companies.” Here, the restaurant owner identifies a growing trend not only in the dining industry, but across all sectors in which tech and algorithms dominate, earning substantial profit margins off the backs of existing restaurants.
Lockdown measures imposed by governments due to COVID-19 have resulted in most restaurants in the UK becoming ‘ghost kitchens’ unexpectedly. Even as dining rooms across the UK slowly reopen, many in the past few months have been forced to expand their services online. As lockdown measures lessen, restaurants who succeeded in this unexpected shift will already be equipped with the means to continue their online dining services and brand, which in some cases may differ from their brick and mortar menus.
In the coming months, Burger Bytes might metamorphose into a fish and chips or street taco kitchen, but the ghost kitchen tucked away in East London will most likely remain. As restaurants hesitantly reopen, it will be interesting to see how they compete with delivery-only ghost kitchens in a (hopefully) post-COVID marketplace.