Dark kitchens must come out of the shadows

Covid-19 has thrust the dark kitchen model into the spotlight but are food safety standards at risk? By David Burrows.

Dark kitchens – also known as cloud, ghost or satellite kitchens – are nothing new. Indeed, the Guardian reported on the phenomenon in London as far back as October 2017. The paper described chefs working in metal boxes, stirring and preparing food for well-known chains to be delivered via Deliveroo.

Back then the new approach – attractive to operators because of the cost savings that non-high-street locations, smaller premises and fewer staff brought – wasn’t taking off quite as well as Deliveroo and others had hoped.

Fast-forward to now, however, and the pressures of Covid-19 on the restaurant trade, together with growing demand for takeaways and deliveries, have thrust this model into the spotlight.

Articles detailing the financial advantages and economic success of delivery specialists have revealed some eye-watering figures. DoorDash in the US was valued at $15bn (£11bn) in June 2020 and is now reportedly worth triple that. Karma Kitchen, which offers shared spaces in dark kitchens, raised £250m in funding when it was looking for just £3m.

“The new alliance of dark kitchens and delivery apps poses an existential threat to the restaurant, one of the last bastions of the British high street,” noted the Economist in January.

Possibly. But do these kitchens also pose a food safety threat?

As Nicola Smith, a regulatory lawyer from Squire Patton Boggs, suggests, a satellite kitchen set up and run by a restaurant operator (as with any individual offering food for sale) still needs to comply with the usual food safety, hygiene and information laws in relation to the food production site. This includes requirements for registration with the local authority, food safety management (based on principles of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or HACCP), preventing contamination, temperature controls, proper storage and date control of ingredients, personal hygiene of staff, pest control and cleaning.

Food information laws and laws to protect consumers from unfair trading, will also still apply where food is delivered from a dark kitchen. The operator needs to consider how information on the nature of a dish, its characteristics and its price will be relayed to a customer when they are remote from the kitchen. This will usually be done via an app or website but this needs to be “particularly clear”, says Smith, because there are no staff to answer queries and double-check anything.

There are myriad other considerations, too, that could leave rules being ignored – either intentionally or unintentionally. For example, how will proof of age checks be carried out for alcohol? All this becomes even more complicated when a third party offers kitchen space and/or the software needed for online ordering and/or logistics and/or order fulfilment.

There are also technical headaches too. If a third party is providing software, it needs to keep menu information accurate and up-to-date. This could raise questions around liability.

Smithy offers an example. “Imagine a restaurant replaces cashew nuts with almonds due to a supply shortage. They advise the software provider accordingly. The software provider acknowledges and agrees to update the app. But the menu wasn’t updated and the restaurant operator failed to check. Who would be responsible if a customer with an almond allergy ordered the dish?”

There have been a number of stories in the press over dark kitchens operating without planning consent and attracting numerous complaints from residents due to noise, smells and nuisance associated with delivery drivers and vehicles in the area (and facing the threat of being closed down or restricted as a result). A recent case in point is in Camden, London, where a Deliveroo dark kitchen led to hundreds of complaints from neighbours. “What Deliveroo are doing is dystopian,” said a local councillor.

Indeed, there are some serious challenges to overcome if the food produced in dark kitchens is going to meet the same standards expected of restaurants. Just because they are called ‘dark’ doesn’t mean they can operate in the shadows with no regulation.

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