How will high street restaurants survive dark kitchen disruption?

Shops have already suffered the fate of losing their footfall to clicks on the internet and it seems restaurants are headed the same way. Amidst the plight of the high street for retail, I’ve always thought of restaurants as the real stalwart. 

Surely you can’t get rid of restaurants from the high street? You need them close to where people live. To some extent this is true. When people go out to eat, they typically don’t want to travel far and they expect a certain atmosphere that a cheap warehouse space is less likely to offer. 

Yet the rise of dark kitchens is causing the inevitable disruption to restaurants that retail has already seen. The difference, however, is that dark kitchens are not necessarily tolling the death knell for traditional restaurants. Rather they are demanding a transformation that savvy restaurateurs will need to keep in their rear-view mirror.

Reduction of overheads

Clearly dark kitchens do not have the same overheads that a traditional restaurant does. To start with they don’t have to rent space for guests to sit in or hire any waiting staff, but there are also more subtle ways in which they can save money. 

They can share kitchen space and even equipment with other businesses and only have a digital menu which they can adapt and change easily without re-printing. The space they do hire can be in more affordable areas and building styles, some of them as part of a larger space operated by a delivery company who stands to gain from their sales, so may offer a favourable rate. 

All this makes a dramatic impression on their bottom line that traditional restaurants can’t compete with. What this means is that the future of the hospitality industry is likely to be split between real and dark and it could be wise for restaurateurs to ensure a mixed portfolio of both.

How will traditional restaurants survive?

Eating out now has two main causes. Either it’s a time-saver or it’s an experience to share with friends. The pace of life seems to just get faster and cooking for themselves is one thing working millennials think they can often do without. This is going to be the market that dark kitchens tap into. Where they won’t be able to compete is creating experiences to share with friends and that is where traditional restaurants will need to focus their energy.

Creating the millennial experience

In a move away from materialism 78% of millennials prefer spending money on an experience or an event to buying something desirable according to Business Community. Restaurants need to focus on the bits of the experience they can’t get through a delivery app: atmosphere, connection with the chefs, synaesthesia (the merging of senses – Kitchen Theory are experts at this), deeper knowledge of the food, masterclasses, pairings, and an element of surprise.

One of the things that restaurants have in spades, but which the average working millennial yearns for is a connection with nature. They typically spend their lives surrounded by and working with technology and things in packages completely divorced from the natural world. What a restaurant can offer them is that connection with nature through food and cooking, but they don’t just want to eat the food. 

That could be confused with the fuel they so often put in their mouths from time-saving kitchens. When they go out, they want to understand the food, take the time to appreciate it, and know how it’s made. Several of our customers at Tried and Supplied share the stories of the local suppliers they work with and have even invited suppliers to talk about what they do alongside a tasting menu. 

Alternatively, you could offer masterclasses in anything from fermenting food to brewing kombucha. It’s important these experiences maintain the right balance of fun, socialising, sensual stimulation and learning. Time is precious and allowing one of these factors to dominate the others could ruin the evening.

Given the general trend, it seems likely that there will be a decline in high street restaurants in favour of dark kitchens, but those that survive will be the ones that master the diner experience and get customers coming back time after time for a new adventure.

By Domini Hogg, founder of Tried and Supplied, a platform designed to help food buyers and restaurateurs find the very best sustainable and local British suppliers

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