The dinner rush is well and truly underway for chefs Mimi and Line.
The couple run five separate restaurants out of the one backroom, commercial kitchen, located inside an industrial area warehouse in Perth’s southern suburbs.
There are no tables, chairs or wait staff — not even a branded sign to acknowledge their existence — just a row of tablet computers that incessantly ping when another hungry customer places an order.
Mimi and Line operate as a cloud kitchen — also known as a dark, ghost or virtual kitchen.
They are a low-cost, quick-turnover business model that is rapidly expanding in every major Australian city, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The delivery-only restaurants exclusively service on-demand food apps like Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Menulog.
“At the end of the day, it’s takeaway. It’s just [that] we have no face anymore,” said Line, who is also a barista and pastry chef.
“We’re faceless. No one sees your face when you’re grumpy!”
The pair specialise in Moroccan cuisine, but in an effort to tap into consumer demand, they also have four other separate menus serving burgers, chicken parmigianas, fries and artisan desserts.
“With a restaurant, it takes too much money,” said Mimi, who has worked as a chef for more than a decade.
“We don’t have a fixed lease here. So we can walk in, walk out anytime we want.
“We just want to try our food out first to see if it actually works
“If it works, we might open a small place somewhere in the future, and then we already know what people like.”
Delivery workers on bikes, scooters and vehicles stream in and out of the warehouse to take the food directly to customer’s doorsteps.
‘You’ve got to move with the times’
Cloud kitchens are a relatively new concept born out of the explosion in popularity of on-demand food services. They first began popping up in the high-density city areas but can now be found way out in suburbia. Don Hancey has worked as a chef in Western Australia for more than 45 years and has run three restaurants.
He recently renovated his two commercial kitchen spaces in Perth, so he could rent them to food producers and cooking schools during the day and dark kitchens by night.
“I think there’s a lot of chefs and great food producers out there who are looking at the cloud kitchen concept. It’s a good business model,” Mr Hancey said.
“[Traditionally] you’ve got your front of house staff, you’ve got your rent, water, gas, rates, electricity.
“The cloud kitchen keeps your costs to a very succinct level.”
Mr Hancey said he believed traditional restaurants would have no choice but to adapt to technology.
“This is the way of the world now and you’ve got to move with the times,” he said.
“To me, they’ll never be anything like going to a nice venue and sitting down and being served.
“But you’re going to have to be a damn smart operator to stay afloat, because all these cloud kitchens and virtual kitchens will take business from you.”
Testing out new ideas in the cloud
London-based online food delivery company Deliveroo has taken the cloud kitchen concept a step further. The company owns and operates two ‘super kitchens’ in Melbourne, accommodating several in-house cloud kitchen restaurants.
“Basically we invite restaurants into the spaces, we provide the equipment, we look after all of the compliance on the site,” Deliveroo’s Tim Talbot said.
“They bring their chefs in, they bring their recipes in and they serve food from there.”
The concept allowed long-running WA fast food restaurant Chicken Treat to make its first foray into the Victorian market.
“Restaurants have to find a way in this time to make money,” Mr Talbot said.
“The hospitality industry is getting harder and harder and harder.
“If you have the skills and the ability to create a burger brand, a fried chicken brand, a loaded fries brand all out of the same kitchen … you should.”
Mr Talbot said one of the unique functions of cloud kitchens was the freedom to easily switch locations and menus at their owner’s will.
“It is a test and it is a chance for them to experiment,” he said.
Dark kitchens for ‘hermits’
The Australian Hotels Association’s WA chief executive Bradley Woods was more cautious about the impact cloud kitchens could have on traditional restaurants’ bottom line.
“Obviously, we would prefer consumers utilise venues that have got bricks and mortar and front facing front doors where the consumer can go in and enjoy hospitality and add to the employment and service provisions that comes with that,” he said.
“There’s an element of [dining in] that will never go away.
“There are also people who want to sit at home on their comfy new couch and look at their big LCD screen, and act like hermits and not go out and meet anyone or see anyone else. And that’s their choice as well.
“So there’s a place there for these dark kitchens for the hermits of society.”
Mr Hancey said the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown forced bricks and mortar restaurants to go ‘dark’ and offer takeaway only.
“[The pandemic] has made them think: ”Is there an easier way than running a restaurant six days a week, working 15 hours a day?'” he said.
“Perhaps cloud kitchens are a smarter business model.
“People will always want to eat out, but I just think with technology now … I mean crikey dick, we could be sitting here now and getting a drone to deliver our food.”
A brief moment in the cloud
For Mimi and Line, the cloud kitchen concept is a temporary measure.
They hope to be able to open their own restaurant serving up their own Moroccan cuisine after another year working under the cloud concept.
“It’s long hours. It’s a lot of work, it’s not as easy as it looks,” Line said.
“Especially now with coronavirus, there’s not many chefs.”
But even as the cloud concept has grown, they said they did not think traditional restaurants should be worried.
“You just have to go with the flow now,” Mimi said.
“That’s the way it is, you can’t change it. You can’t stop progress.”
Line said time-poor consumers were driving the change.
“At the end of the day, you like to go out on a nice summer night to a restaurant and sit outside and socialise,” she said.
“I think both ways will survive.”