What are ghost kitchens and will they make the future of dining look eerie? – Screen Shot
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What are ghost kitchens and will they make the future of dining look eerie?

By Emma O'Regan-Reidy

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.

KFC is working on 3D-printed nuggets

In the last few years, we’ve witnessed the rise of lab-grown and plant-based food and started swapping juicy, non-vegetarian burgers for the alternative meat industry’s Beyond Burger. We even went as far as to binge-eat (or binge-watch) digital food on Instagram. In other words, the food industry saw some pretty mind-blowing changes. But there remains one trend that didn’t receive as much attention as the previous ones just yet: 3D-printed food.

Now, things are finally about to get interesting in the 3D-printed food market. KFC, along with the California-based startup Finless Foods, are both getting involved. Forget about 3D-printed guns flooding the US market. How does a meal of bioprinted chicken nuggets sound instead?

KFC just announced a partnership with the Moscow-based company 3D Bioprinting Solutions to test out bioprinted chicken, which could be one of the highest-profile deals yet for the lab-grown meat industry. KFC added it will have its final testing for the product this fall, and thinks printed meat will become part of its “restaurant of the future.” Details on when or where the printed nuggets will be available have not yet been shared.

The fast-food chain plans to provide 3D Bioprinting Solutions with ingredients like breading and spices “to achieve the signature KFC taste” and will, of course, seek to replicate the taste and texture of real chicken. For the vegetarians reading this, don’t get too excited as the bioprinting process KFC describes uses animal material, so any nuggets it produced won’t be suitable for vegetarians, unfortunately.

According to KFC, bioprinted nuggets still represent some major positives when compared to real chicken meat. The 3D-printed nuggets would be more environmentally friendly to produce than chicken. In its announcement, KFC cited a study by the American Environmental Science and Technology Journal which it says shows the benefits of growing meat from cells, including reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption compared to traditional farming methods.

Meanwhile, the startup Finless Foods has been trying to use 3D printing to improve astronauts’ diets. The company is currently working on cultured fish cells that can be grown in zero-gravity environments. To achieve this, Finless Foods also partnered with 3D Bioprinting Solutions. Last year, the companies sent a bioprinter along with a set of fish cells to NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) for testing.

The team was able to grow the cells to a certain density and use the bioprinter to arrange the fish cells into 3D structures, forming small spheres of cells—the first step toward shaping it into something that looks like the food we consume on Earth. As complex as this process sounds, it might be the only chance for us to get presentable food in space.

When it comes to the possibility of having humans live in space, there seems to be one problem (among others): sending items into space is extremely expensive—about $10,000 a pound, according to Forbes. That’s why we need to start thinking about a way to make our own food in space. Growing fish meat without the actual fish could help in this specific situation. And if shown possible, Finless Foods’ fishcakes could also represent a sustainable option on Earth, one that doesn’t overexploit seafood.

Now, as exciting as both these projects sound, bioprinting still faces a few problems. The most significant one for now being the lab-grown meats’ texture. For now, the fake meats don’t mimic the same muscular structure of, say, a normal fish. Instead, they look a lot like mincemeat, which makes them a whole less appealing all of a sudden.

While companies are working on this issue, this mushy lab-grown meat might just be the perfect option for our pets. According to The Hustle, a number of companies including Bond Pet Foods and Because Animals “are already racing to corner the 3D-printed pet food market.” As we impatiently await KFC’s bioprinted chicken nuggets, we can sleep at night knowing that if not us, at least our pets are enjoying a lovely eco-friendly meal.