The rise of the ghost kitchens

The rise of the ghost kitchens

Not only are homemakers trying out various cuisines at home and upgrading their kitchens, restaurateurs are also innovating away, thus making ghost (or cloud) kitchens the new normal.

Cloud kitchens are in.

Not too long ago, at the onset of the pandemic, relishing a plate of homemade goodness — as most remained cooped up indoors — was the thing to do.

Pictures of something as simple as a rice bowl with a side of fresh local greens, or mom-made meat loaves, the warmth of familiar love wafting from it, flooded social media feeds and became a vibe in itself. People – millennials and the middle-aged alike – found a thread of connect as they caved into the Dalgona Coffee trend and baked banana breads and sourdoughs in feverish glee. One post led to another and one thing was certain – the lockdown birthed many a home chef as people finally took refuge in the kitchen, to calm their chaos.

Fast forward to now. As the Work-From-Home (WFH) way of being becomes the norm, ordering food from home chefs, from small businesses functioning within the confines of homes or from restaurants operating via cloud kitchens has picked up majorly. Ghost, or cloud kitchens, as they are known, are basically custom-built facilities to provide food for delivery. The advantages are clear — lower rents, much-lesser overheads and the opportunity for more culinary creativity. Which is why, many major dine-in restaurants in metros have cloud kitchens now and offer a wide array of global cuisines for the hungry homebird. Business and otherwise, the concept feels like a win-win and might end up re-fashioning the Indian culinary space in more ways than one could imagine.

Survival is key

Proactiveness is the key here. “As the lockdowns rolled out, we realised that a lot of youngsters in Bangalore needed the warmth of a comforting meal, which ticked the basic boxes — taste, hygiene and accessibility as they remained cooped up indoors. As everyone was engulfed in a wave of uncertainty, consuming a home-cooked meal somehow felt oddly comforting. And there began our journey, with offerings ranging from Indo-Chinese to Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese dishes. We’re a brand new and carefully built cloud kitchen, based out of Koramangala,” begins founder Shivam Gupta, enthusing how the venture runs on the ethos of inclusivity. "We have provided in-house accommodation to our chefs ‘to keep contact with outside personnel absolutely minimal’. Entrepreneurs — home-based or otherwise — need to be more invested in the safety of customers and the people behind it for their businesses to survive,” adds Shivam.

Thinking along similar lines, Kalpana Shah, a Mumbai-based home chef who runs a small venture of her own, believes it’s important for fledgling entrepreneurs to be proactive in their operating procedures. “Initially, as the lockdown was declared, business was impacted. Eventually, we were quick to build an operating procedure for safe food preparation and delivery. The numbers slowly picked up and we were back to normal much before we expected. My word of advice to home chefs running businesses would be to maintain food licenses and upgrade systems actively.”

Vedika Toshniwal, founder of an eatery platform that brings together various home chefs and cuisines, opines that an important innovation towards this form of operating is personal follow through and feedback. “Personal interaction has helped me immensely in retaining valuable customers. This has ensured productivity not just towards client servicing, but also proactive vendor communication,” she says.

The future is in the cloud

Given how cloud kitchens are better suited to the needs of socially distanced customers over traditional dine-in restaurants, the trend is here to stay, believes Moumita Ghosh, a foodpreneur who’s been milking the digital trend to expand her business. “Takeaway is the future. Add to it the secret of using heirloom recipes passed down from generations and you have a great meal right before your eyes!” she says, speaking about her Hyderabad-based cloud kitchen that delivers quality food from local delicacies to Bengali specials and sweets so that one can enjoy the taste of home-cooked food. 

Home-run businesses have also pushed entrepreneurs and home chefs to turn to their families to extend the scope of the business and keep it running. Paushali Bhattacharya and her mum Chef Saswati Bhattacharya conjured up a cloud-kitchen venture in May 2020 by offering specialised Calcutta thalis. Soon, they became a big hit. “We started small, but are growing with occasional bulk orders in Kolkata,” Saswati smilingly states, while adding how having her daughter helming managerial duties helps in streamlining things. “Running a venture with family brings you closer and helps you understand their strengths and weaknesses better.”

Star hotels and eateries across the country believe that heightened standards of hygiene are a prerequisite for those wanting to enjoy a  fine-dining experience, home-delivered. “During lockdown, it was more about takeaways and Do-It-Yourself kits. Everyone ultimately zeroes open something largely based on the assured levels of hygiene,” says the executive chef of a premier hotel chain, Praveen Shetty. “We are an ISO 22000-certified hotel and have an in-house lab to check each and every process since the pre-opening stage of our hotel. We started the concept of takeaways especially on Sundays, where we wanted guests to not miss their favourite dishes from our signature restaurants. We have an Aayush ministry approved special ingredient-based menu (since the latest trend is about healthy eating). This is something we’ve pursued since the lockdowns began.”

The pandemic has been a gamechanger and has made deliveries more eco-conscious and complex, says Pooja Sahu, a restaurateur. While recreating an in-house dining experience through deliveries is the goal, the path to get to it is fraught with challenges, especially for new players, she feels.

“We may not have accomplished this goal but we are diligently working towards maximising customer experience. Our packaging is 100 percent compostable and food grade. We did several trials of various packaging materials to arrive at what we have. Delivering food to customers is far more complex and not so much in our control; we have to ensure the packets reach in a good state and that they are not tampered with. Currently, we are dependent on other delivery services, but we are working on getting our own riders for the best customer experience. At the restaurant, we are following all the safety protocols to ensure the customer can dine without inhibitions. We have ramped up our social media presence and are using our creativity and ingenuity to generate business. A little empathy from customers will go a long way in keeping us inspired,” she smilingly states.