I Don't Want Your Ghost Kitchen

With the pandemic on the run, let's put down our phones and break some margarita glasses

I suppose I can understand why a PR agency would repeatedly email me about JustKitchen, a Taiwan-based “app-to-door dining/cloud kitchen” start-up poised to IPO on the Canadian stock exchange. I’m a technology reporter with expertise in Taiwan who pours a ton of energy into a food-writing side-hustle. A perfect match! Swipe right!

On the other hand, I am also the last person a publicist should ever ask to investigate a VC-funded scheme aiming at extracting economies of scale from food prep and delivery. My gut feeling is that, writ large, the cloud kitchen (or “ghost” kitchen or “dark” kitchen) model is bad for labor, bad for independent businesses, bad for the environment, and generally bad for society.

Paragraphs like the following, from a TechCrunch repurposed press release for JustKitchen, make me break out in hives.

Launched last year, JustKitchen currently offers 14 brands in Taiwan, including Smith & Wollensky and TGI Fridays. Ingredients are first prepped in a “hub” kitchen, before being sent to smaller “spokes” for final assembly and pickup by delivery partners, including Uber Eats and Foodpanda. To reduce operational costs, spokes are spread throughout cities for quicker deliveries and the brands each prepares is based on what is ordered most frequently in the area.

When I hear the words “final assembly” and “TGI Fridays” deployed in the same paragraph, I do not think “bold innovation.” I think, this is the end of food.

But ideological differences and food snobbery aside, I realized this morning that there was another reason I’m not the right person to be writing about food delivery app. In the year that has passed since the first lockdown order came down in the Bay Area, I have ordered out for delivery just once.

I believe this makes me something of an outlier.

My reasons are economic. The pandemic resulted in my lowest annual income as a journalist since I was a cub reporter at the Bay Guardian in the early 90s. So paying for delivery surcharges on top of restaurant prices is not a line item on my personal menu. Making the tastiest meal possible out of the cheapest ingredients is my specialty.

It has a been a time of isolation, but not necessarily hardship. I love to cook, and have ample free time to do so. And I certainly appreciate why others have been gobbling down delivery.   

The pandemic, as Anna Wiener wrote in her superb dissection of “Our Ghost Kitchen Future” in the New Yorker last summer, created a natural environment for cloud kitchens and food delivery startups to thrive. For a world huddling indoors, the tech economy has been a life-saver. There was a need; it was fulfilled. I have no gripe with that, even as I nod along with Wiener at the sheer weirdness of it all:

Virtual restaurants are a little surreal: the shape-shifting nature of brands and menus; the elimination of the spontaneous, collective, social dimensions of dining out; the separation of user experience from human labor, like a culinary Mechanical Turk.

Here’s the thing, though: we’ve got the pandemic on the run. I am ten days away from getting my second Pfizer shot and  I am already making plans for a gathering at which I will cook for someone other than myself (or my immediate family).

Consider the implications!

It’s been widely observed that the rich got richer during the course of the pandemic; and this was especially true for the great tech moguls. But now that the plague is under control it is high time to to reverse this trend. We no longer need depend on Zoom and DoorDash and Amazon and Netflix to survive isolation. Let’s put our tech tools away and re-embrace human companionship.

It’s time to clean out the smoker and make sure the blender is operational. It’s time for laughter to waft from my back porch and elbows to bump around the kitchen counter. I’m even looking forward to the sound of margarita glasses breaking.

In the summer that is coming, we won’t need virtual kitchens. We’ll be too busy re-enacting the Roaring Twenties via dinner parties. 

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Extra spicy:  The good people at the China Stories podcast invited me to record my mapo doufu saga for broadcast. If you’re craving half an hour of my dulcet tones, you can find it here.