Mon. Dec 6th, 2021

Coronavirus restrictions have been difficult for many businesses. But takeaway delivery services were not among them: they prospered as consumers discovered an appetite for convenience. A recording last year by data provider Statista, for example, showed an average increase of 17 percent in the number of delivery service users in eight European countries.

However, convenience has a large carbon footprint. A 2020 Chinese study estimates that the average urban fast food delivery order generates 111.8g of CO2 equivalent – about the same as driving a mile in a car. And, given the rising demand, it easily scales to millions of tons per year, worldwide.

But the sector’s rapid growth has also caused a boom in Europe’s ‘dark kitchens’, where takeaways are prepared exclusively for sale on delivery applications. The resulting economies of scale could, in principle, make the industry greener. However, finding out if this is the case is far from simple.

Sometimes known as “cloud kitchens” or “ghost kitchens”, dark kitchens can be either facilities where a single restaurant brand prepares meals, or buildings where a number of companies share space – these tend to be in warehouses on the outskirts of cities.

It is difficult to say exactly how many dark kitchens there are. Delivery service Deliveroo has 300 worldwide, each hosting several different restaurant brands. In comparison, there are more than 50,000 conventional restaurants on its application in the UK alone, so dark kitchens still represent only a fraction of its business.

A number of other companies and start-ups also work in the sector. These include Spain’s Glovo and Sweden’s Curb, as well as Foodstars in the UK.

Business cycle: a delivery driver for the Spanish company Glovo in Madrid
Business cycle: a delivery driver for Spanish company Glovo in Madrid © Javier Soriano / AFP via Getty Images

“Dark kitchens are now playing a decent role in the urban food landscape,” says Eleonora Morganti, a researcher on food consumption and distribution at the University of Leeds in the UK.

How sustainable dark kitchens are depends on four factors: the delivery model, the packaging, the sharing of kitchen space and the use of data to predict customer orders – a significant efficiency advantage over eat-in-eat.

Of these, the pros and cons of delivery are perhaps the most difficult to unravel – and operators do not seem to be in a hurry to try. “The sustainability of delivery models is not currently a hot topic,” says Morganti.

The larger dark kitchens, which merge many brands, tend to be on the edge of cities, where property is cheaper. This means delivery journeys are longer than for downtown restaurants, which increases emissions.

But the more kitchens share a location, the greater the chances that a rider will consolidate multiple orders to the same area, which will reduce the delivery mile per meal compared to delivery from multiple individual takeaways.

“The impact is also linked to the personal mobility of each individual client,” says Morganti. If the delivery trip replaces a customer’s 10-mile car ride to a restaurant, it’s different than replacing a walking, biking, or bus ride. In practice, however, dark kitchens are next to cities, where shorter, lower emission trips are the norm.

The choice of delivery vehicle also matters. Deliveroo has a policy of only allowing bicycles and electric scooters to be picked up from some sites, and also provides electric vehicle charging points at some locations. Yet, while dealing with the grain of regulation in many cities – London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, for example, has expanded significantly this year – many riders still rely on petrol power.

Packaging is more simply problematic. The same Chinese study which calculated the gram weight of CO2 equivalent per delivery, concluded that 86 percent of it was due to packaging. Many companies still use plastic, but even recyclable cardboard or paper adds waste compared to restaurants.

However, there are solutions, says Anton Soulier, who runs Taster – a French company that helps restaurants build their online brands and operates dark kitchens in France, the UK and Spain.

One possibility is reusable packaging, where delivery riders pick up cutlery and crockery after customers have used it. Soulier says the logistics are under discussion within the industry.

Other aspects of dark kitchens have clear sustainability advantages over conventional delivery services. In some of the larger premises, brands share energy-intensive equipment, such as freezers, which save electricity. By sharing the same space, companies also offer the opportunity to combine their supply chains and reduce the number of truck rides needed to complement the kitchens.

“It will be better if [supplies] centralized, ”says Morganti. “I would suggest that they share ingredients or napkins. But we’re in a free market, and it’s about branding and being unique – people will not all want the same napkins. “

But perhaps the most important benefit stems from the amount of data that dark kitchens collect. Companies can use algorithms based on what people order and when, so that they can predict the demand and meet exactly that.

Carl Tengberg of the Swedish company Curb, which operates dark kitchens in Sweden and Denmark and creates brands for the various kitchens that use them, sees this as a crucial advantage. “With more efficient and smart kitchens, we have an edge in eliminating food waste,” he says. “Our goal is simple: no food waste.”

Soulier says the entire industry will follow, with traditional restaurants soon introducing data analytics software as well.

But if dark kitchens lose their edge over eating restaurants in terms of data, can they ever hope to compete with the sustainability evidence of the traditional restaurant?

Ultimately, says Morganti, it relies on combining both the supply chains of brands that share the same kitchen, and the delivery of meals to customers in the same area. If that can happen, and the industry can switch to vehicles with no emissions and reusable packaging, its eco-credentials could start to improve.

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