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"robots galore" | spooky kitchens #8
March 3rd, 2022. Robots, regulations, and rollouts. Oh my!
Happy Friday y’all,
We’re back from our brief and unexpected 1-week hiatus! Thanks for hangin’ with.
First thing’s first: you can also read this on the web, with slightly better aesthetics than your inbox. Just FYI.
To the news:
So what happened this week(ish)? (TL;DR)
Now fire C-3PO!
It’s robots galore on spooky kitchens this week with a trio of robotics headlines for y’all. Lots of movement here (incremental as always) over the last few weeks:
DoorDash trademark filings hint at plans for robot business (Joe Guzkowski, Restaurant Business). Doordash is paving the way to launch a pair of automated Tex-Mex brands. The artists formerly known as Chowbotics (now “Dashbotics,” woah) have set up robotic prep and render methods for both “Tex-Mess” and “Queso Your Way” (the names could be better). It’s unknown how much (if any) human assistance will be required for these brands, as well as what format these “restaurants” will take; that is, are these standalone kiosks, virtual restaurants for host kitchens, or better suited for ghost kitchens? They could easily be all of the above. There are a lot of quotes in this write-up; as there is a lot of uncertainty left in this story. If or when I do eventually see “Tex Mess” pop up for delivery, I’ll still try it — I’m an absolute sucker for queso.
White Castle is installing Flippy 2 frying robots at 100 locations (Steve Crowe, The Robot Report). A triple-digit installation is no joke. White Castle appears sold on the capability and longevity of Flippy (2), which has been long in the works at Miso Robotics (they’re a cousin-company of Kitchen United via owner/founder John Miller’s Cali Group). More than drone tests and little food-toting rovers on campuses, this rings to me as a milestone development in restaurant robotics as a reality. All that said, White Castle has been on board with Flippy for a minute and has faced significant hiring challenges (see: every restaurant); so the double-down (hundred-down?) is ultimately no huge surprise.
Hyphen wants to be the Shopify for restaurant robots (Michael Wolf, The Spoon). I don’t fully understand how this works, aside from the broad strokes of “marketplace for restaurant robotics.” Which sounds dandy. But they’re also developing their own robots? Does Shopify make their own…anything? Anyway, Hyphen purports to be democratizing restaurants in the way that ghost kitchens did a few years ago, with their slate of menu-flexible robot offerings putting the ability to scale in any restaurateur's hands. But even that democracy can’t exactly be cheap, right?
Honorable mention: Starship, a robot food-delivery startup, nets $100M (Marc Vartabedian, WSJ). Starship completed another fundraising round(ish) as it continues to expand into campuses across the country. Its potential utility outside of those campuses remains to be seen.
👻 Wendy's CFO: Ghost kitchens, nontraditional units will make up half of 2022 store growth (Aneurin Canham-Clyne, Restaurant Dive). Wendy’s is planning to open up to 200 REEF locations in 2022, a welcome turn around from REEF’s rough last few months of headlines. Wendy’s — and many other big brands at this point — has fully embraced ghost kitchens as central means of expansion. The brick-and-mortar is the heart of the restaurant industry; the drive-thru, the stomach; and ghost kitchens, well, they’re the cell phone. The technological foreign appendage we all find attached to our bodies, reluctantly, inevitably, inescapably.
Related: Dine Brands Inc. says pandemic made Applebee’s and IHOP stronger (Lisa Jennings, NRN). You know the off-premise revolution has become the off-premise reality (if you needed any further proof) when Applebee’s and IHOP have officially bought in.
🔨 Massive ghost kitchen project announced for downtown San Antonio (Steven Santana, My San Antonio). Brought to us by the “heir-apparent” of Bill Miller BBQ (lmao at the royal nomenclature), MOD Kitchen is an independent ghost kitchen with room for 25 individual concepts. At 16.6K sq ft, the size is in the ballpark of other startups like Crave Collective (15K) and Prep ATX (17.5K), though larger than the 6-10K sq ft Kitchen United & CloudKitchens seem to prefer. Despite the founder’s statement that the kitchen was created for “smaller startup, mom-and-pop type clientele,” MOD has already garnered interest from national franchises looking for DT real estate—which to me sounds like a perfect encapsulation of the trajectory of this entire industry.
👿 Grocery delivery “dark stores” in Amsterdam have residents hopping mad (Morgan Meaker, Ars Technica/Wired). This short article is a great example of the friction between ghost (or dark) operations and locals, if communication is handled poorly (or not at all). Of course, it’s not just communication; the fact that there is constant traffic buildup on the street of note shows a lack of foresight and planning from dark grocer Zapp — speaking from experience, traffic and local antipathy are obvious considerations that might rule out a location altogether, unless you can ensure officials and residents are aware of what’s going on (or you have the dough to shell out to mount a defense). This kind of tension is not exclusive to Europe, either; we’ve seen municipalities and cities balk at ghost kitchens here in the US, too. Moral of the story? Talk, don’t block (traffic). It’s a stretch.
🙅 New regulation in China to hit food delivery giants’ profit model (Rita Liao, TechCrunch). China imposed a nationwide delivery fee cap that caused Meituan’s shares to drop 15% and Alibaba’s (owner of Ele.me, Meituan’s only significant competitor) to drop 4%. The change was made to help China’s hard-hit service industry sector bounce back, as it has suffered plenty under China’s strict COVID containment (lockdown) measures.
🛒 Kroger expands ghost kitchen rollout to Houston (Dan Berthiaume, Chain Store Age). Yeehaw! This marks the second Kroger location containing a Kitchen United Mix outlet (the first being in LA), and the first in Texas. The new to-go store-in-store opens with Fuddruckers, Buca di Beppo, Capriotti’s, Dog Haus, The Rustic, and The Impossible Shop (and even more virtual brands). Mum’s the word on any additional locations upcoming in any market.
🍩 Krispy Kreme takes delivery-only shops to the US (Jonathan Maze, Restaurant Business). Taking a more unique route to ghost store testing, Krispy Kreme (a US-based company) first opened its “dark stores” (“dark” is to the UK as “ghost” is to the US) in the UK before bringing it back to the States. However, these aren’t full ghost kitchens, but more of a hub-and-spoke, hot-and-fresh donut delivery network in which donuts are prepped at a central shop or facility before distributing to these dark stores in various neighborhoods to hold for orders, at which point they would be warmed and/or quickly delivered to customers in that area. A strategy that, to me, makes fine sense for donuts; but not necessarily for all brands that attempt it.
🌮 Dessert: Tijuana Taco Safari with Ed’s Manifesto, pt 2 (L.A. Taco). Get ready to get hungry. I love tacos, as do all coherent people. This series digs into the less frequented taquerias of highly-touristed Tijuana alongside LA TACO editor (and one of my favorite food writers) Javier Cabral and TJ native Ed Calderon.
That’s been spooky kitchens.
P.S. If you’re just jumping into ghost kitchens and want to learn more, check out my ghostly glossary and spooky kitchens ghost kitchen cheat sheet. They’re there (and frequently updated) to help make sense of this weird and wild west.