Judging from innumerable sources, eavesdropping (yes, it happens!) and personal conversations, it appears that the practice of cooking at home “from scratch”, is dead as a doornail. Slaving away at the stove is just a hangover from your mom’s generation and if you’re not “ordering in” you’re most likely “eating out”.
In some of my past articles I’ve explored current trends relating to our food habits in order to understand how they reflect our time and lifestyles. The slow food movement has warned us about how far we have strayed from the healthy traditional habits we used to have, those of eating local and cooking slow; and repeated warnings from medical experts about the hazards of eating fast food, a widespread feature of our increasingly stressed-out lives, have scared us into reconsidering that lifestyle and finding more convenient and healthier alternatives; though these alternatives rarely actually mean cooking “slow food”—at least not in the US.
The meal kit subscription services such as Blue Apron or Hello Fresh emerged as one of the most attractive alternatives to the fast food curse for those who may not be slow food enthusiasts and who certainly don’t have the time or the inclination to do it from scratch.That would mean planning, shopping, organizing, on top of actually cooking. Too much to take on board if you’re either heavy into your career and getting home at 9, or driving your kids around from soccer to ballet.
So, what other options are there? Food delivery apps like GrubHub, Seamless, Eat24 and UberEATS allow you to order meals from hundreds of restaurants and be delivered to your door. This is a convenience that could only have been dreamed of until recent developments in technology made it possible. That’s the good news.
But what you may not know is that while you may be ordering from a particular restaurant’s menu, if it’s from an online service or some “restaurants” like Leafage and Butcher Block, you may in fact be getting food prepared in a communal commissary that may be servicing half a dozen or more restaurants. We are witnessing the rise of the “ghost kitchens” and the “virtual restaurants,” and probably the death of the brick-and-mortar variety that we are used to; this has been dubbed “the restaurant apocalypse”.
These ”dark kitchens”—also called “ghost kitchens”-– will never see a diner or a waiter and will never take a reservation. The only people who traffic in and out of them are the cooks who produce the meals and the couriers who pick them up for delivery. “Cloud kitchens” are even more interesting, as this is a more general term for a shared kitchen for food delivery-only restaurants.
In 2015 the concept was largely unknown, but this is quickly changing as the concept has proved itself to be extremely advantageous for restaurants in many different ways. “The trend toward off-site dining experiences is shaking up the entire industry…Every day it becomes a larger part of our business and we’re excited about the new ways it allows people to experience our brand.”
These “communal commissaries” are springing up all over the place. One of these, Green Summit, located at 146 East 44th Street in New York City, has an exclusive agreement with Seamless/GrubHub and offers a wide range of meals at all price points, varying from sushi to burgers, to snackies; from obscure restaurants to those owned by celebrity chefs. High-end restaurateur David Chang is one of these.
It’s not hard to see why this business model is an excellent one for the restaurateurs. As has been succinctly pointed out, “a restaurant like Chipotle or Pret a Manger has to dedicate 75% of their space to seating, while 90% of their customers just grab and go.” Management is paying outrageous rent prices—especially in a metropolitan area like NYC– in addition to the other overhead expenses, for the benefit of only 10% to 25% of their customers. A “ghost kitchen” like Schatzberg’s on the other hand, can open in a space as small as 200 square feet and operate a profitable restaurant business with a minimal overhead.
But while this business model is a boon in the short term, it may prove to be a death sentence in the long term. Sector analysts declare that the restaurant business, especially the chains, are at much the same point now that mall-based and big-box chains were in the early 2000’s, when e-commerce was burgeoning and beginning to threaten the brick-and-mortar businesses. Many of these establishments have already died and many others are on the verge of disappearing. All you have to do is visit your local mall to see the damage that e-commerce has done to the traditional ways of shopping.
Online ordering of meals and communal commissaries may be the answer to succeeding in the restaurant business, but only for those entrepreneurs who are willing to observe trends, respond to them and gamble that they will be among the survivors of the coming war between real and virtual restaurants.
The bottom line is this: if trends like the meal kit subscription service or the restaurant home delivery service have blossomed, it is because home cooking is going the way of the dinosaur. No doubt that there are some very compelling reasons for this change, as mentioned above. Another is that feminist ideology has been interpreted—or better, misinterpreted—by many women to mean that cooking is a menial task better identified with their subjugated mothers than themselves.
So many conflicting pressures, so much guilt. On the one hand there are more and more reasons that make it hard to cook at home from scratch, and on the other we have pundits who never tire of reminding us to eat healthy–preferably slow-cooked food–instead of junky fast-food. We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. The home delivery from the restaurant may be a way to bring these two goals together, but how many people can afford such a luxury? And are we willing to see the brick-and-mortar restaurants go the way of the mom-and-pop merchants who were strangled by behemoths like Amazon?