A dark kitchen is a physical location where kitchen staff or small, local businesses can set up to provide delivery-only takeaway meals.
These companies don’t need physical premises for you to pick up from and have surged in popularity throughout parts of the country, responding to the need for contactless food delivery.
Also known as ghost kitchens, cloud kitchens, shadow kitchens, delivery-only restaurants or virtual kitchens, dark kitchens can come in multiple forms with one or more restaurants renting the same space.
Even before 2020, the takeaway food delivery market made up 8% of the overall UK food service sector.
Since the pandemic, in London alone, restaurants are selling an extra 900,000 meals a week via popular apps like Deliveroo and Uber Eats.
The industry is certainly booming, with the pandemic presenting new opportunities for takeaways, convenience stores and restaurants to enter the market and thrive on customers' increased interest.
But how has the past year changed the types of food we’re ordering and the way that companies are doing business?
One big development has been the rise of dark kitchens.
To find out more, we used Deliveroo’s database of more than 50,000 restaurants to see how the pandemic has affected the nation’s takeaway choices – and even the business models that food delivery brands are using.
We also spoke to industry experts and restaurateurs from across the UK to find out how the pandemic has affected their business and what their predictions are for the coming months as lockdown lifts.
As we approach the end of the Covid lockdowns, there'll be a lot to reflect on.
In this report, we’ll celebrate the ingenuity of the hospitality industry and the rise of the dark kitchen revolution in responding to changing consumer behaviours and providing greater cuisine diversity than ever before.
‘Dark kitchen’ is one of the phrases used to describe the concept of setting up a catering venue for the sole purpose of providing takeaways - as opposed to a restaurant or other catering facility that would serve food to patrons.
Dark kitchens have grown markedly in number since 2020 - in part thanks to the restrictions put in place by the UK government, preventing customers from eating inside restaurants and cafes.
Their growth is not simply a response to Covid though.
The resilience of the hospitality industry in adapting to changing consumer behaviours has been evident for some years and many predict that dark kitchens will only grow in popularity as the population adapts to the ‘new normal’ but retains the habit of ordering in.
In 2017, Deliveroo launched its Editions scheme to promote the idea of dark kitchens (or ‘virtual kitchens’ as they call them) to a wider audience, by providing hubs where catering businesses are set up solely to make food to be delivered to homes.
Paving the way for dark kitchens, the scheme has been successful in its launch years.
A spokesperson for Deliveroo tells us that there are now “14 sites in the UK and 30 sites worldwide, facilitating 220 kitchens”.
Looking at Deliveroo’s Editions brands, there was a 12% increase in vendors using its kitchens as a base for delivery-only services up to a total of 402.
London’s nine locations including Islington and Whitechapel make up almost two-thirds of these dark kitchens.
Many of the cloud kitchens outside of the capital have also been taking on more brands.
The Editions sites in Manchester and Leeds nearly doubled in size during 2020, and are set to grow even further as the two cities’ populations expand.
The chart below shows the areas in the UK where dark kitchens (or ‘ghost kitchens’) have seen the biggest increase in number when we compare 2020 to 2021:
As shown here, the north of England has seen the greatest proportional growth, with Leeds up 100% and Salford up just under 93%.
One of the many major changes we’ve had to face through Covid-19 is that of strict travel restrictions that have turned our wanderlust into wondering about when we might once again travel to foreign shores.
As any avid traveller will attest to, one of the great joys of travel is the opportunity to sample new dishes and experience foreign cuisines.
And that’s where the restaurant industry has provided some hope for us all, in the form of a greater diversity of cuisines than ever before.
The rise of the dark kitchen has had a positive impact here, with the costs of waiting staff and other overheads being hugely reduced.
This allows budding restaurateurs to get a foot on the hospitality industry ladder - increasing variety and driving cuisine diversity on our menus.
Milton Keynes saw the biggest rise in diverse takeaway options over the course of the pandemic, with almost double the food choices now available - compared to the start of 2020.
There was also a surge in options across the West Midlands, with Tamworth, Stoke-on-Trent, Rugby and Birmingham all in the top 10 by percentage increase.
Across the UK, the number of delivery options was up on average by 45%, and only one area – Wrexham in Wales – seeing a decrease in outlets serving takeaway food.
London’s outlets rose by 40%, with more than 21,000 different options now on offer. With those numbers, you could order from a new place every night for 57 years!
The areas of the UK which saw the greatest percentage rise in takeaway food options when comparing 2020 to 2021 were:
Giles Moody is the business manager at Mighty Small, a platform to help food & drink start-ups to reach consumers and he commented on the growth of his business’ reach over lockdown:
With over 50,000 different restaurants now available to choose from on Deliveroo alone, pizza is the UK’s most common takeaway cuisine, followed by chicken and coffee/desserts.
The chart below shows the most common takeaway options by area:
Though the larger chain stores like Pizza Hut, Pizza Express and Franco Manca are present in most cities, smaller independent restaurants have also seen growth as consumers enjoy a wider range of cuisines.
The trend toward healthier takeaways has also grown in the past year.
The number of sandwich and health food vendors on Deliveroo shot up by 133% to 1,660 over the course of 2020, overtaking Chinese takeaways on the app (1,165) and coming close to rivalling Indian food (1,663).
The burgeoning popularity of veganism has undoubtedly contributed to this trend, with 379 restaurants mentioning ‘vegan’ in their names.
It’s also worth noting that the rise in the availability of healthy food via Deliveroo is due in part to the likes of Subway and Pret a Manger.
Whilst it’s possible to order salads and other good-for-you foods from these major chain restaurants, they don’t exclusively serve healthy fare so it’s important to take their place in this category with a small pinch of salt.
Health food takeaways may be on the rise, but our data shows that they’ve got some way to go before they knock pizza and fried chicken off the top spots.
Suppliers will no longer need a storefront to sell to customers, reducing overheads and other costs such as staffing in the process.
With all of this data at our fingertips, there are tonnes of key takeaways to get your teeth into.
From rising numbers of vendors in the West Midlands to the flourishing dark kitchen phenomenon, there’s plenty to unpick here.
The 45% increase in UK food outlets on Deliveroo was no doubt due in part to the various lockdowns we’ve been through.
With restaurants required to close their doors to customers throughout large parts of the year, many businesses have been forced to take their services online and offer food deliveries in order to survive.
Certain parts of the country have seen particularly significant increases in the number of takeaway outlets on offer since the pandemic began – providing more choice for customers than ever before.
Milton Keynes took the top spot with a staggering 93% rise over the course of the year, nearly doubling from 132 to 255 takeaways during this time.
The West Midlands was also a hub of food delivery expansion: Tamworth, Stoke-on-Trent, Rugby and Birmingham all made it into the top 10 for percentage increase in takeaways on Deliveroo, with each of these locations seeing more than a 79% rise in the number of outlets available.
But what does all of this mean for these areas now and in the future?
Of course, one key upshot is that there’s now more power to the local consumers.
In 2021, residents living in the hometown of MK Dons have access to 255 different eateries via the app, spanning a wide range of cuisines from staples like Chinese and Indian through to more niche options such as Cuban and Portugese food.
The flipside for restaurants in places like Milton Keynes is that competition is growing – and is likely to continue doing so in the future.
As food delivery apps become inundated with new offerings, we’d expect to see outlets going to increasing lengths to attract custom.
In particular, competing on characteristics such as the quality and uniqueness of their food (all of which bodes well for local customers!)
As our analysis shows, the growth of the ghost kitchen phenomenon has been particularly concentrated in the North of England.
Vendors using Deliveroo’s Editions sites in Leeds and Salford increased by 100% and 93% respectively, with a total of 59 dark kitchen vendors between them as of March 2021.
Discussing the success of cloud kitchens under the Editions scheme, Deliveroo’s spokesperson commented:
“We have seen a 70% increase in average order volume per Edition kitchen since March 2020, demonstrating the vital role Editions have played to support restaurant partners during the COVID-19 crisis.”
This touches on a key feature of app-owned dark kitchens – as well as providing another revenue stream for food delivery apps like Deliveroo, these establishments offer an option for businesses to trade even if they can’t afford the expense of physical premises.
Particularly in difficult times like these, virtual kitchen schemes are offering a helping hand to up-and-coming brands.
Despite the clear increase (12.3%) in dark kitchens we should keep things in perspective. It’s worth noting that locations such as Reading and Dulwich saw notable decreases.
Moreover, of the 50,590 locations on Deliveroo across Britain right now, just 402 of them are delivery-only services operating from Editions sites (less than 1%).
And this takes into account only one of the food delivery apps.
The idea that cloud kitchens will undercut the takeaway market in the near future looks a little less likely when we consider the movements made by other players in the food delivery space.
Uber Eats – Deliveroo’s closest competitor – abandoned its plans for a ghost kitchen empire last year, with boss Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty stating that the company had “no intention at this stage to start [its] own proprietary network of dark kitchens''.
The last year of lockdowns and temporary restaurant closures has dramatically altered Britain’s takeaway landscape, leading to a 45% rise in the number of UK food outlets on Deliveroo overall.
By digging deeper into the data, we’ve uncovered a whole host of other interesting findings:
Whatever happens over the next few months, industry experts are confident that while the pandemic has opened up opportunities for new restaurants to enter the game using takeaway and delivery primarily for custom, demand still firmly remains for physical restaurants for people to go and be wined and dined without the worry of doing the dishes afterwards.
As locations begin to open up in the coming months we will be keeping an eye out on new independent restaurants and dark kitchens to see how they can maintain momentum in the coming months and years!
We sourced data from Deliveroo's sitemap. Current restaurant numbers (including locations and cuisine types) were then cross-referenced with data from March 2020 using archive.org, comparing how they have increased or decreased over the year.
All data on dark kitchens came from Deliveroo’s website via a site search.