The bustling food delivery app scene in Brazil has taken an intriguing twist with a revelation that approximately one-third of the restaurants listed on iFood, the nation’s most popular food delivery platform, are actually operating as “dark kitchens.” This groundbreaking insight comes from the first-ever study of its kind in the country, shedding light on the flourishing phenomenon of these delivery-only eateries that have no physical presence and operate exclusively through online platforms.
Published in the journal Food Research International, the study, authored by a team of eight researchers from the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in São Paulo state, delves into the prevalence and characteristics of these dark kitchens, also known as ghost restaurants. These culinary entities have witnessed substantial growth, particularly since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they play a significant role in the food delivery landscape.
Defined in the article as establishments devoid of direct consumer contact, devoid of dine-in facilities, and solely reliant on virtual channels, dark kitchens have emerged as a cost-effective alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants. These delivery-focused kitchens often operate on the outskirts of urban centers, catering to consumer demand for convenient and budget-friendly options.
To gain comprehensive insights into the landscape, the researchers embarked on a two-stage data collection process. Initially, they gathered data, including names, URLs, and taxpayer numbers, from over 22,000 restaurants across cities like Limeira, Campinas, and São Paulo. The second phase involved qualitative analysis of around 3,000 establishments, leading to the classification of establishments into three categories: dark kitchens, standard restaurants, and undefined entities.
The research uncovered several noteworthy trends. Dark kitchens were found to be predominantly located farther away from city centers, enabling them to offer more affordable options by minimizing overhead costs. In contrast, standard restaurants typically enjoyed higher user ratings, potentially reflecting a greater familiarity with consumers. The study also highlighted the prevalence of Brazilian cuisine and snacks/desserts in the offerings of these dark kitchens.
In terms of concerns, the researchers identified potential health and safety issues associated with these establishments. Dark kitchens, operating in relative obscurity, often skirt the edges of regulatory frameworks, raising questions about consumer protection and inspection protocols.
Dr. Diogo Thimoteo da Cunha, a professor of nutrition at UNICAMP’s School of Applied Sciences and a key contributor to the study, emphasized the need to establish legal frameworks for dark kitchens. “We want to make life difficult for them, not least because they’re economically significant and are here to stay,” he stated. “Our aim is to understand their impact on the wider economy and find out how they can be made legally viable so as to be accessible to sanitary inspection.”
This pioneering research, funded by FAPESP, offers a comprehensive glimpse into the evolving landscape of food delivery platforms and their influence on consumer perceptions, culinary offerings, and regulatory challenges. As the study gains traction and sparks discussions on the future of these dark kitchens, researchers and industry stakeholders are poised to collaboratively navigate this dynamic gastronomic terrain.