Dark forces: the restaurants using dark kitchens to survive

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Restaurants dark kitchens deliveroo uber eats Coronavirus lockdown

Related tags Restaurant Casual dining QSR delivery Coronavirus

Keeping the brand alive is a test facing operators across the sector right now. But for some, using dark kitchens to maintain and even expand operations, could hold the key

Pledging to open a new site every week for two months would, even at the best of times, pose a significant challenge to any accomplished restaurateur. But how about trying to do it in the midst of a global pandemic that has seen the majority of the sector in which they operate put into stasis and customers forced into lockdown?

“I don’t know when we will sleep,” says Deacon Rose, co-founder of London-based fried chicken brand Coqfighter, as he considers the challenge. For him and his team, it isn’t a hypothetical one.

“We’ve set ourselves the rather misguided ambition of attempting to open a delivery kitchen every week until the end of June,” he explains. “After the lockdown happened, we saw two obvious options: either we batten down the hatches and ride it out; or we be proactive and take some risks. We chose the latter.”

The week leading up to the UK’s Coronavirus shutdown in late March was treacherous for the Coqfighter team, as it was for operators across the industry. “All our sites had ground to a halt,” says Rose. “Sales had fallen to practically nothing, and the anxiety that produced in our staff was off the chart. By the time the lockdown was finally announced, it came as a relief.”

At the time Coqfighter, which was founded by Rose and his friends Troy Sawyer and Tristan Clough in 2014, had three locations in London: two Boxpark sites in Croydon and Shoreditch; and a full service restaurant in Soho. The sudden collapse in sales across the business had been devastating, but the welfare of the company wasn’t the trio’s primary concern.

“We wanted to continue operating a delivery service purely to support our staff, some of whom had told us they would prefer to work as long as possible,” says Rose. “Boxpark initially allowed traders to keep operating as delivery-only business, with enhanced health and safety, and social distancing measures in place, and that worked really well. But then they pulled the plug on it after just a week, which was immensely frustrating.”

“We’ve set ourselves the rather misguided ambition
of attempting to open a delivery kitchen
every week until the end of June”

The closure of Boxpark left the team with only their Soho restaurant, appropriately located on Beak Street. But being in an area with a high restaurant and low residential density, the site had never been a strong performer on delivery platforms. And so Rose, Sawyer and Clough began putting together a Coqfighter relief plan that sought to utilise commercial kitchen spaces left empty by the shutdown, and use them as temporary delivery hubs.

“We figured food deliveries were an essential service,” says Rose. “These are dark times; people need to feel a sense of comfort, joy, and escape. So we started hunting around for empty kitchens we could use. All options were kept on the table, and the process took different routes depending on where we looked.

"Within a day, we had secured a prep kitchen in Hackney Wick; the next week, we had agreed to temporarily take over the St Leonards kitchen in Shoreditch; since then we’ve taken on a pub kitchen in Finsbury Park; and we’ve also got a fourth site in south east London lined up.”

Rose explains that all dark kitchen sites currently being used by Coqfighter have rolling monthly tenancy agreements, meaning the risks are minimised. The team begins by looking at catchment areas they feel will work for the business, and then try and identify potential kitchens that could be available for temporary use.


Doubling down on delivery

It’s not just Coqfighter making such manoeuvres: other smaller-scale independent brands, including hot wing maestros Drums & Flats, and Indian-inspired burger concept Baba G’s, have turned to empty kitchen spaces as a way to preserve their operation during this crisis. At a time when businesses everywhere are taking stock and working out how to make ends meet in the months ahead, doubling down on delivery can offer some short-term security.

“It’s about keeping the brand alive more than anything else,” says David Michaels, founder of mini-burger brand Bite Me Burger, which in the last month has taken over two kitchen sites in the capital to prepare orders for delivery; in Hackney and Bermondsey, respectively.

“It helps that the running costs are fairly cheap,” he says. “If need be, we’ve been able to fit the kitchens with equipment usually used for the outdoor catering arm of our business; teams are limited to two or three people in one shift, which also makes it easier to implement social distancing and cleaning practises; and we’ve been careful in both instances not to enter into long gestating contracts, but instead keep it rolling month-on-month.

“If, after a certain amount of time, we look at the figures and it’s been a success for both parties, then we’ll potentially look to extend them further.”

Michaels acknowledges the challenges of expanding his operation at such an unstable and uncertain time for the industry, but interestingly one element that hasn’t proved to be much of a problem is finding staff. “In normal times, we’d find ourselves only receiving a handful of applications each week,” he says. “At the moment we’re getting dozens. And if we look to open more of these kitchens in the coming weeks, we’ll certainly be pushing forward and taking on new hires.”

Rose says similar. “There are some fantastic chefs out there in need of work right now. We’ve already taken on guys who’ve previously worked at amazing places like Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Temper, and St Leonards; incredibly talented people who are just looking to earn some money and get by during this really difficult situation.

“So far we’ve managed to hire through personal contacts, but if that dries up we’ll start using traditional methods for hiring staff. But I don’t anticipate us needing to do that yet; we know a lot of people who are keen to work.”


Pushing further afield

Sourcing empty restaurant kitchen spaces to set up a delivery arm isn’t the only option available to operators looking to maintain their businesses at the moment. Others, such as London-based Greek street food player The Athenian, have followed a more conventional approach. Having opened their first Deliveroo Editions kitchen back in February, back when the notion of a nationwide lockdown sounded more like a fantasy, founders Neo Christodoulou and Tim Vasilakis have begun pushing forward with securing similar sites not just in London, but beyond it.

“When the virus hit, we knew we wanted to keep the business running, both to help safeguard the jobs for our teams and as an avenue for allowing us to support and help feed the community,” says Christodoulou. “And so, as well as keeping open what sites we could to offer delivery, we spoke to Deliveroo about potentially expanding our reach through other Editions kitchens.

“So far we’ve looked in London, and may potentially be opening one there in the coming weeks, but we’ve also considered regional locations as a jumping off point for potentially growing the brand in the future. We quickly managed to secure spots at the Editions sites in Reading and Brighton, and both are already operational.”

Expanding through Deliveroo offers great benefits in Christodoulou’s eyes. Kitchens are fitted to spec by the delivery platform, at no upfront cost to the operator. But there are also drawbacks that must be considered.

“The kitchens are a great way to expand our reach, but the commission charged by Deliveroo on sales is also higher. The margins are therefore much thinner, and so for us it’s about choosing locations where we’re confident we’ll get a steady stream of business and can make the economics work.

“A lot of the regional areas rely heavily on the evening trade, which wouldn’t be a benefit for us. Throughout this process we’ve had to make sure we’ve been careful in our strategy when it’s come to selecting locations outside of London.”

“When the virus hit, we knew we wanted to
keep the business running, both to help safeguard
jobs and as an avenue to help feed the community"

Having sought and secured their Reading site less than a week after the lockdown was announced, Vasilakis and Christodoulou have demonstrated a similarly proactive approach to the Coqfighter and Bite Me Burger teams. Like them, they say this isn’t just about making a quick buck to help tide them over.

“It’s not about maximising profit right now, it’s about looking at the opportunities available to us and broadening our brand awareness so we’re in a strong position to come out of this on the other side,” says Christodoulou. “We’re treating it like a mapping exercise, looking at how these kitchens in Brighton and Reading fare, with a view to potentially establishing bricks and mortar sites further down the line.

“Operationally, it could prove to be a very beneficial approach, as we would already have begun establishing a pool of staff to train others and manage the sites as and when we open them.”


Brand development

Talk of the future is met by all with a muted sense of optimism. “I think the delivery-only model will be around for a while before we begin seeing a clearer return to what we’re used to,” says Michaels. “I can’t imagine anything starting to really pick up again until after the summer, maybe around September time, and suspect we’ll then see a big rush by operators trying to make some profit in time for Christmas.

"Talking to others, they share the same view. But, of course, we’re at the mercy of the virus itself.”

For the Coqfighter triumvirate, if Rose, Sawyer and Clough manage to reach their target of opening a new delivery kitchen every week for the next couple of months, by the time the lockdown begins to ease they could find themselves, temporarily at least, with more sites than perhaps they ever envisaged. But curiously, that’s not the only element of the business that would have grown.

“Our ambition has always been to be a multi-concept restaurant company,” says Rose. “Coqfighter was the first, but we are always developing ideas for brands and menus and this current situation has allowed us to bring some of those launches forward.”

The first of those is Goodburger, a smash-patty burger concept that the boys have been developing for the better part of two years. The menu is tight, with only a handful of options including a double-patty cheeseburger topped with house sauce, pickles, and onions; a green chilli burger with pickled green chilli and smoky chipotle mayonnaise; and a blue cheese burger with crispy fried shallots and blue cheese sauce.

“Launching Goodburger now as a delivery only concept makes sense, as it allows us to get as much as we can out of these dark kitchen spaces,” says Rose. “And don’t be surprised to see another concept launch before lockdown ends. We have another one ready to go.”

But what about beyond the lockdown; when things do, finally, start to get back to normal?

“It would be utterly delusional to say this hasn’t impacted our future plans for Coqfighter,” laments Rose. “We don’t anticipate opening any new restaurant sites in the next 24 months. Unless they were very low CapEx options. It’s very difficult to say how things will pan out.

"If many restaurants fall over in the next six months we may see a land grab, with restaurant companies sitting on loss-making sites in great locations. That won’t be us, though.

“What will footfall look like? How will social distancing restrictions affect restaurants? In all likelihood we will pivot our business model to focus more on delivery services while looking to consolidate what we have already. And, at the same time, keeping an one eye out for smaller, premium-free, low rent sites.”

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