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New on the menu: Could 'dark kitchens' gobble up Britain's high street restaurants?

London

WHEN Eccie Newton and her sister began making fresh salads and sandwiches to deliver to London office workers, their startup company Karma Cans became so popular they soon had to expand - and hit a common roadblock: space.

"We just couldn't find any kitchen space - it was almost impossible," Ms Newton recalled of their venture in 2014. So, the 29-year-old set up her own "dark kitchen", a catering warehouse in Hackney in east London that hosts about 85 catering businesses. Dark kitchens - also known as "virtual" or "ghost" kitchens - take their name from large retail warehouses that cater directly to online customers, bypassing stores.

Often in under-utilised buildings, portacabins or warehouses on the outskirts of cities, dark kitchens allow chefs to cook up and serve food directly to online consumers.

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The rapid rise of these food factories has some property experts predicting the death of bricks-and-mortar restaurants and, subsequently, local high streets in Britain as online deliveries become the norm.

"As it plays out, it's going to put a lot more pressure on the high street," which could mean people going out less to socialise or lead to the loss of local jobs, said independent professional property buyer Jonathan Rolande.

But fans of the no-frills kitchens say they offer a new lease of life to abandoned properties and help small catering brands compete.

Ms Newton said that often regulated to the same standards as restaurants, far from replacing them, dark kitchens provide a "complement to food culture".

From New York to Shanghai, hungry city dwellers in search of food are increasingly reaching for a phone, rather than heading to the kitchen, using apps such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo.

In Britain, there were almost 5 million fewer trips to full-service restaurants in the 12 weeks to March 24, 2019, compared with a year earlier, according to data analytics firm Kantar.

Dark kitchens, originally popular with small, independent food companies, have gained favour with larger chains too. Firms such as noodle restaurant Wagamama are joining the trend to provide customers with their food in places where they lack a physical restaurant presence or where demand for online delivery is high.

Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick is joining the bandwagon with his CloudKitchens venture, a delivery-only "smart kitchen" enterprise that rents out catering spaces and provides its clients with marketing support.

The boom in online food delivery services comes with a raft of social implications, according to property experts. Mr Rolande envisages that as food delivery apps become the norm, big restaurant brands could be "in a position to walk away from high streets".

Prominent British television chef Jamie Oliver shuttered most of his UK restaurants in May, culling about 1,000 jobs as his restaurant chain Jamie's Italian went into administration.

Two months earlier, the Boparan Restaurant Group announced it was going to close more than a third of its Giraffe and Ed's Easy Diner outlets.

And well-known chains Carluccio's, Prezzo, Strada and Gourmet Burger Kitchen all closed branches in 2018.

Mr Rolande said the convenience of ordering food online likely contributed to those closures, and that the growth of dark kitchens could help fill property space that would otherwise sit empty.

But he does not think this will necessarily bring economic benefits to the communities in which they are located.

More likely, he said, society could well get to the point where people no longer require kitchens in their own homes. REUTERS