Out of sight, out of mind: inside London’s dark kitchens

Delivery pizza Pic: Alexandra Gorn

During the UK-wide lockdown, many people are relying on food apps to deliver their meals. But is your takeaway coming from an industrial estate, not a restaurant? Caitlin Griffith Otway asks is enough being done to regulate ‘dark kitchens’ and, as consumers, should we care? 

On an industrial estate nestled between intersecting railway tracks, a waste removal facility and a scaffolding company, sits a nondescript industrial unit. Inside, a wide variety of international cuisine is being prepared, including Japanese, Lebanese, Greek and Italian. There are no tables or chairs, no waiting staff and nowhere to place your order. In fact, there are very few people at all. 

This site in Battersea is one of dozens of so-called “dark kitchens” dotted across London, cooking food exclusively ordered on apps for delivery to people’s homes. Many of the kitchens operate out of prefab structures, shipping containers, or industrial units, with little ventilation and no windows, giving rise to the name dark kitchens. 

The kitchens may be preparing food for a big name restaurant such as Wagamama or Franco Manca, or for a new start-up brand without a traditional premises. The sites are cheaper to run than a bricks-and-mortar restaurant as there’s no waiting staff or the need to light and heat a dining room.

Food delivery company, Deliveroo, which refers to the sites as super kitchens, owns the Battersea site and 15 others across the UK, comprising over 100 kitchens. The company told Eastlondonlines that the kitchens benefit customers, start-up brands, and existing restaurants. The company provides the kitchen space and equipment while restaurants stay in control of their menus. “Our sites allow businesses to increase their sales without the cost of setting up a high street premises. Consumer demand for different cuisines can vary in different areas, so we identify cuisine gaps in the local market and predict which restaurants will succeed.”

On Deliveroo’s website and app, restaurants with dark kitchen sites are branded with a small “Editions” logo, and a line of text declares, “This restaurant is on Editions. Delivery-only kitchens for your neighbourhood.”

Deliveroo Editions Pic: Caitlin Griffith

Deliveroo claims that the kitchens benefit everyone. However, popular job websites list low-paid, zero-hour jobs at Deliveroo’s kitchen sites. Some pay just over minimum wage. They offer few benefits other than being able to wear “casual dress” to work and “discounted or free food.” 

In recent years, the Government has boasted about more people working than ever before. But at what cost? The number of cases of exhaustion and exploitation within the gig economy as a whole is increasing and the world of work is fragmenting into a precarious place for many workers.  

A delivery rider who didn’t want to be named, spoke to Eastlondonlines: “Some customers have a quick chat or say thank you, but some take the food and say nothing at all. It makes you feel subhuman.” He told us that he feels under pressure to ride quickly and make as many “drops” as possible. When asked about the conditions inside the dark kitchens he picks up from, he said: “I think the chefs there struggle sometimes. Being a rider is isolating, but at least I’m out on the road.”

Stress and difficult working conditions in kitchens is nothing new. Many chefs in traditional restaurants have reported struggling with the pressure of busy services, hierarchical systems and substance abuse. But little has been written about the conditions inside dark kitchens. A report by the Royal Society for Public Health described them as “small boxes where food is produced in dark, cramped and low paid environments which are frequently either too hot or too cold.” 

A former dark kitchen chef, who asked not to be identified, said he quit his job after feeling dispensable and isolated: “No one seemed to care about us. Out of sight, out of mind. I felt like we’d been dumped there. It was really bleak arriving to work each day. It’s not like anywhere else I have worked.” 

Eastlondonlines spoke to The Food Standards Agency about hygiene inside the new kitchens. They told us delivery platforms such as Just Eat, UberEats and Deliveroo “are beginning to put the safety of the consumer first.” Just Eat now displays food hygiene ratings, and new businesses must have a score of 3 or above before being listed. UberEats and Deliveroo also show hygiene ratings on their apps. 

Deliveroo told Eastlondonlines that they “maintain the highest standards at Editions kitchens. Partners are required to maintain a 4- or 5-star FSA rating.” However, some new kitchens have to wait a significant period of time before inspections are carried out.

A Deliveroo dark kitchen site Pic: Caitlin Griffith

In its eagerness to cash in on London’s insatiable appetite for quick food, Deliveroo has faced some pushback from residents and councils. In Southwark, Deliveroo was served with an enforcement notice in 2018 as “their kitchen pods were disturbing residents, and they didn’t apply for the necessary planning permission.” Southwark Council told Eastlondonlines that the kitchen in Valmar Road, Camberwell, has since ceased trading.

A Tower Hamlets Council spokesperson told Eastlondonlines that they have seen an increase in the number of applications for delivery-only sites and are aware of concerns from residents. “We are finding an increase in licensing applications for kitchens operating to service the home delivery market. A noise nuisance complaint could affect the licensing of such premises and noise is one of the issues considered prior to issuing a license. We are following this closely.”

As unemployment decreases, desperation and stories of exploitation within the gig economy increase. Deliveroo riders have struggled for years for union recognition and support. Deliveroo staff are hired as self-employed contractors instead of employees, saving the company millions of pounds in holiday and sick pay, as well as tax, at the expense of their drivers and chefs.   

Despite the success of delivery apps, most people who order food using apps are unaware of the existence of dark kitchens. In a social media survey of 72 people, from a range of demographics, carried out by Eastlondonlines, over 70% of respondents had never heard of dark kitchens. In contrast, 50% said they would mind if their food was prepared in one. Notably, 85% of respondents said that delivery apps should make it clear when customers are ordering from a dark kitchen.

The welfare of chefs and riders is first and foremost the responsibility of companies who employ them. But responsibility also lies with the consumer, as we blindly devour what is presented to us onscreen. It is time to consider who is preparing and delivering our food, ensuring we don’t have to get up from our sofas, other than to answer the doorbell.  

Wagamama and Franco Manca were approached for comment, but had not replied at the time of publication.

This is day two of our series on food hygiene. Check out the rest of the investigation here #foodforthought 

Want to know more about dark kitchens? Watch this video for more information

Leave a Reply