Shukran Best Kebab – the finest Turkish restaurant in the Seven Sisters area of north London, according to some people (although it is surrounded by fierce rivals to the throne) – joined Deliveroo two years ago, and back then it seemed like a no-brainer. “Life as a small, independent restaurant is hard and the profit margins are slim,” says Hüseyin Kurt, Shukran’s owner. “We wanted more customers and money coming in and Deliveroo seemed to offer that. I didn’t think there was a downside.” Within a few days of signing a contract with the company, a shiny new tablet computer arrived on which orders placed via Deliveroo appeared out of the ether with a satisfying ping.
The sense that something was wrong dawned gradually. Kurt, a gregarious, bearded man in his early 40s, who left his central Anatolian home town in 1995 and used his love of food to build a new life in the UK, ran the numbers: with Deliveroo’s commission amounting to 35% plus VAT on every order, he was forced to increase his prices to avoid losing money on each sale. It meant anyone buying his huge adana kofte or mixed shish kebabs through the Deliveroo app was in effect paying three surcharges for the convenience, as Deliveroo was also charging them a delivery and service fee. That went down badly with previously loyal customers who were presented with a vast number of often heavily discounted competitors when using the app.
The more Kurt thought about it, the more he wondered what his restaurant was supposed to be gaining from this arrangement. When things went awry, such as a delivery driver not turning up or someone complaining about a missing item, he could be hit with a financial penalty, and it was almost impossible to reach a human being at Deliveroo to resolve it. And, as time went by, Deliveroo was learning more and more about his clientele, while his customers grew ever more remote from him. “It just felt like Deliveroo were taking in money and information from every angle, while other people – us at the restaurant, the drivers who came to pick up the orders – did all the work,” he says.
That was when strange rumours first began swirling around the local restaurant scene. Word was that Deliveroo had started building its own kitchens on a piece of wasteland up the road, just the other side of Hornsey railway line; the newly installed units had no windows, people said, and a security guard was posted on the door. Kurt couldn’t understand it. “What do you think is going on in there?” he asked fellow restaurateurs. “What do Deliveroo know about cooking?”
If you live in one of the 150 British towns and cities now served by Deliveroo, the firm’s turquoise logo probably feels ubiquitous these days: plastered on stickers inside takeaway windows, bobbing on the backs of cyclists and motorbike riders, flashing across television sets during the evening news. Deliveroo’s much-hyped stock market flotation last month dominated headlines, as did the rapid tumble in its share price after major institutional investors opted to steer clear. Many cited concerns about the company’s corporate governance and potential legal challenges from its 50,000 delivery workers, who are currently classed as self-employed contractors rather than salaried employees.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently claimed that a significant proportion of the riders it sampled earn below the minimum wage, including some who are paid as little as £2 an hour; Deliveroo claims that riders earn £13 an hour on average at the busiest times (although this does not take into account periods in which few or no orders come through) and that the fees paid to riders are increasing year on year.
Amid these controversies, one important fact about Deliveroo has passed relatively unnoticed: the company that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, calls a “true British tech success story” has never turned a profit – even during the Covid lockdowns. It’s hard to imagine a more fortuitous set of circumstances for Deliveroo’s business model than the pandemic, which has led to most people spending several months in effect under house arrest while pubs and dine-in restaurants shut their doors. But despite seeing a huge surge in demand (total orders for the first quarter of 2021 were more than double those for the same period last year), the firm ended up cutting a quarter of its staff jobs in 2020 and relied upon a big cash injection from Amazon to stave off ruin; this year, it is on course to make a loss of almost £300m. And yet financial markets still value the firm at nearly £5bn.
“In a world where consumers want more, better and faster, we think Deliveroo is doing a good job,” concluded a report by the private investment bank Berenberg earlier this month. Plenty of people who make money from money are betting that Deliveroo is on a long-term path to profitability, even if its current set-up pushes the company further into the red with every order. “We truly believe we are still getting started,” declared Deliveroo’s founder, Will Shu, in a letter to prospective shareholders. “Join us on the journey.” But what is that journey’s ultimate destination? And what will the implications be – for the way we eat, the livelihoods of those who feed us and the future of our neighbourhoods – once we arrive?
West Green Road, home of Shukran Best Kebab, runs for more than a mile through north-east London – from Ducketts Common in the west to Tottenham’s Latin Village market in the east. Step left or right out of Kurt’s doorway and you’ll find yourself immersed in one of the most dense and diverse independent restaurant scenes in the capital. Nigerian diners rub up against Korean fast-food joints; Polish cafes dovetail with Ghanaian bakeries, Caribbean takeaways and Ugandan charity kitchens. Nearly all of them are family-run or owned by just one or two individuals living locally.
“The whole planet is here,” says João Castro, owner of Bom Pecado, a Portuguese restaurant whose name means “Good Sin”, which is famed for its hearty stews and pastel de nata pastries. Castro says that the road’s fusion of culinary cultures lends itself to serendipitous interactions. “It’s a special, social place,” he says. “People end up sitting down next to strangers and discovering who they are.”
Before most of us walked around with smartphones in our pockets, the West Green Road restaurants that offered a takeaway service would handle deliveries themselves. In the mid-2000s, Just Eat, today the biggest player by far in the UK’s food delivery market, began aggregating local takeaway options, allowing customers to browse a range of nearby meal choices on a single website, rather than having to wrestle with a bulging folder of paper menus that had been stuffed through the letterbox. But deliveries were still largely managed in-house, at least until 2013, when Deliveroo kicked off a new generation of highly competitive “food delivery platforms” that provided restaurants with a full toolkit of delivery logistics – from order terminals to a network of drivers on demand. The days of grainy cinema adverts for the local curry house were over; before long, Snoop Dogg was promoting your nearest chicken balti on prime-time TV.
At first, many outlets in West Green Road shunned Deliveroo and its rival Uber Eats. For one thing, Deliveroo was oriented towards the wealthier end of the market – “the Waitrose of restaurants, whereas around here we are more Tesco or Aldi”, one Tottenham restaurant owner says. For another, many were happy to concentrate on eat-in clients, only sending meals out in a taxi if needed. But the pandemic changed everything: overnight, access to reliable delivery infrastructure and a ready pool of delivery customers went from being a niche luxury to a vital survival mechanism. Nearly every food outlet in the area is now signed up to the platform, including several off-licences and grocers, a major new target for the company in its quest for perpetual growth. “Deliveroo is here to deliver for restaurants who want to carry on offering their amazing food to families at home during this difficult time,” said Shu, as the country’s first lockdown came into force.
Talk to restaurateurs about their experiences with Deliveroo over the past year, though, and a more complex picture emerges. The Observer has spoken to several cafe- and restaurant-owners in the neighbourhood and, with one exception, who is broadly neutral, all of them are critical of the company. Everybody insists that the commission levels are far too high and that local independents are paying over the odds compared with national chains and prestige brands. There is anger too that restaurants are at the mercy of Deliveroo’s way of ranking them within the app, with little transparency over why some outlets are at the top and others become lost to obscurity down below.
“They woo you with honeyed words and push users towards you at the beginning, so it seems like it’s working out, then you drop like a stone,” claims one. “They’re stealing our customers and we’ve had enough – we’ve told them to come and remove their machines,” says another, referring to the fact that when a restaurant joins the platform it can bring with it a host of devoted fans who Deliveroo can market to other restaurants. “It’s robbery, pure and simple.”
None of the interviewees begrudge Deliveroo the right to charge restaurants for the service it is providing. Their grievances revolve around the fact that by assuming the role of market gatekeeper, the company has a responsibility to play fairly, and that in this regard it is falling short. Speculation abounds that favoured restaurant names, of the type rarely to be found in this part of the city, are able to cut better deals than smaller outlets that are rooted in their communities but have no economic clout when it comes to negotiating fees. Many refer to the fact that unlike their own firms, Deliveroo pays no UK corporation tax, and the restaurant owners suspect the net effect of the company’s operations is that money flows out of a poor neighbourhood – Tottenham’s unemployment rate is currently the fastest growing in the country and its level of child poverty is almost double the national average – and into the pockets of far-flung global investors.
But despite these complaints, almost every restaurant owner says they have no choice but to remain on the platform because that is where the customers now are. Nearly all requested anonymity in this article for fear that speaking out against Deliveroo could see them relegated down the app’s search rankings. The Observer requested an interview with a representative of Deliveroo to discuss criticisms made by its restaurant partners but was told that no one was available.
In a statement, the company said that it was proud to work with more than 50,000 riders and 46,000 restaurant partners in the UK and that it had helped the latter boost their growth during the pandemic. “They are at the heart of our business and their wellbeing and success is our number one priority,” it said. “We have also introduced a wide range of support measures to help our community, from the £16m Rider thank-you fund to the new £50m community fund, which will directly support riders and restaurants partners.”
Underlying many of the restaurants’ concerns is something more intangible: a fear that as many of us become accustomed to selecting lunch or dinner through a smartphone, our relationship to food itself, and the social context that surrounds it, is shifting. Kurt comes from the Kayseri region of Turkey, as do the owners of several ocakbaşı or “grill” restaurants in the area; to him, the local takeaway scene is a rich map of cultural reference points – something intimately bound up with physical geography, in the land from which his cuisine emerged and the places in which it is now cooked here. For customers, eating in small restaurants provides some exposure to that reality; by contrast, ordering a meal through a food delivery platform, where identical-looking options are likely to be sorted by the size of the discounts being offered or how fast a third-party motorbike rider can deliver to you, is an abstract process.
“The interface of an app like Deliveroo appears to be completely flat, even though it’s built on data that is generated in real places, by real people,” says Adam Badger, an academic at Royal Holloway, University of London, who specialises in this subject and has also worked as a courier. “Restaurants become data entries; delivery riders are just a loading bar travelling from left to right across a screen.” Like all seemingly flat surfaces though, Deliveroo’s hard edges are out there – you just have to know where to look.
The Deliveroo Editions site at Cranford Way, north London, sits at the back of an electricity substation, sandwiched between a boxing gym on one side and some overgrown scrub on the other. Despite the rumble of motorcycle engines making their way to and from the entrance, and the beeps of lorries reversing out of the adjacent self-storage and warehouse complex, it feels eerily quiet. You could sit here for hours and almost never hear a human voice.
Like most “dark kitchens”, it occupies the edge lands: spaces that are neither one thing nor another, urban offcuts that are easily overlooked. Other Deliveroo Editions sites in the UK can be found at the back of industrial estates or below traffic flyovers. They typically consist of up to 16 metal boxes roughly the size of shipping containers, packed on to a patch of asphalt with generators humming in between. Compared with West Green Road, Cranford Way feels like a different universe and yet it’s barely half a mile from one end of the street. From here, offerings from Pizza Express, Shake Shack and “Cluckleberry Finn Fried Chicken” – a delivery-only outfit that you won’t find anywhere outside Deliveroo’s app – are pumped out into the city. Thousands of people live in the Deliveroo catchment area for Shukran Best Kebab. Most of them are now, unknowingly, also in the catchment area for Deliveroo Editions.
“Dark kitchens” are places where meals are prepared entirely for delivery. They have been used for decades in areas such as catering for mass events, but the idea of gearing them towards home takeaways is relatively recent. It’s a leap that has only been made possible by the rise of food delivery platforms, and the global leader of the concept is Deliveroo, which opened its first dark kitchen in London in 2016. Today, the company boasts 250 in eight countries, each of them home to a fluid array of tenants, including international chain restaurants, tentative startups and virtual brands, some of which might “exist” on the app for just a few weeks.
To many, the notion of a whole host of different cuisines emerging from the same kitchen – with a chef simultaneously preparing a pizza on one work surface and a Sichuan hot pot on another – feels unsettling, but it reflects the logic of the abstracted digital marketplace; the New Yorker recently described dark kitchens as “the culinary equivalent of a multicolour retractable pen”. To make a success of the operation you need to know what colour to push and that’s where Deliveroo’s vast stores of data come to the fore. “Using our own technology, we can identify specific local cuisines missing in an area, identify customer demand for that missing cuisine and handpick brands that are most likely to appeal to customers in that area,” Deliveroo’s property acquisitions manager, Patrick Weiss, has said.
As the firm’s prospectus for its flotation reveals, Editions lie at the heart of Deliveroo’s vision of the future and its plan to win the delivery-app wars. “With unparalleled global expertise, we are uniquely positioned to scale this concept,” the company claims, and many investors agree. “Deliveroo already has a great database of consumer preferences,” says Ioannis Pontikis, an equity analyst for the financial services firm Morningstar. “And once you’ve set up a dark kitchen, it’s very easy to trial new brand ideas, new food concepts, new marketing and promotions.” Pontikis points out that dark kitchens don’t only have an edge over bricks-and-mortar restaurants when it comes to generating demand: they also benefit from better unit economics – ie a lower cost for each meal produced.
Established restaurants in West Green Road may have spent years building up fixed infrastructure, a trusted reputation and a place for themselves in the area. But when it comes to being able to adaptively predict, produce, advertise and cheaply deliver whatever particular meals are wanted in nearby postcodes at any particular moment – burgers and wings on a Saturday afternoon during an England football game, for example, or comforting bowls of pasta on a rainy weekday evening – Cranford Way blows them all out of the water.
For both existing restaurants and budding restaurateurs, there are some advantages to dark kitchens. In towns bedevilled by crippling rents, setting up shop inside one of the Deliveroo Editions sites rather than taking out an expensive and inflexible lease in the high street is a relatively cheap way of testing demand. Some of Britain’s most innovative food outlets began life as pop-up cafes or mobile trailers at festivals; for many, dark kitchens are the next step in bringing their food to a wider audience. And in the context of the pandemic, during which nearly every restaurant essentially became a dark kitchen at some point, delivery-only production sites have arguably been a lifeline.
Rosa’s Thai Cafe, a restaurant that started out as a husband-and-wife operation, and has since grown into a small chain of 24 UK outlets, opened four dark kitchens in the Covid era, including one at Cranford Way. Its chief executive, Gavin Adair, believes that the concept can help to lower entry barriers for established and fledgling restaurants alike and should not be seen solely as a threat to existing businesses. “You don’t have a long-term commitment, which is one of the things that has tripped up some businesses that have tried to grow in the past,” he says. “These kitchens may end up helping to prove there’s enough interest in our product in a particular neighbourhood for us to eventually open up a full restaurant there. Fundamentally, we’re very clear that we’re a restaurant business with an ancillary delivery operation. It’s not an either/or.”
Deliveroo likewise insists that the Editions model is designed to support existing restaurant sites in the high street, not replace those premises, and says that its Editions kitchens have saved some restaurants from going under, enabled local brands to expand nationally and helped small outfits grow into established names.
But ever-more expansive restaurant choice for consumers is not necessarily good news if the playing field isn’t level. Deliveroo refuses to divulge the commission rates it charges different restaurant partners, yet Adair acknowledges that when it comes to the economics of app-based delivery, his company is in a fortunate position because of its “strong relationship” with the platform; few of the restaurants in West Green Road can say the same. And a fleet-footed future of transitory, disposable virtual brands and site-hopping around industrial parks does not hold much promise if your restaurant is woven into the fabric of a real place, especially if the data being used to construct that future has been gleaned from the hard graft of businesses like yours. Pontikis is convinced that, coronavirus lockdowns aside, there will always be a healthy demand for some eat-in restaurants, particularly those at the higher end of the market. But he says smaller family-run takeaways that have traditionally depended upon local awareness and accessibility might find it harder to distinguish themselves within a market wholly geared towards convenience. Their long-term fate, he says remains “the million-dollar question”.
Kurt insists that if dark kitchens ever begin offering meals that directly rival his own, he will rip the Deliveroo sticker from his window and throw it in the bin. But he may already be too late. Deliveroo is no longer the only player in the dark kitchen market: Foodstars, recently bought out by the former Uber boss Travis Kalanick, already operates just east of Shukran Best Kebab, on the edge of a waste-processing plant; last year, Karma Kitchen, which has just landed £250m of new investment, opened its own delivery-only kitchen unit less than two miles north.
In March, Reef, an American company that buys up car parks with a view to transforming them into “hubs for the on-demand economy” – offering a space to everything from vertical farming units to pop-up parcel sorting depots and, of course, dark kitchens – announced it was working with the owners of Wood Green shopping centre, 10 minutes by motorbike from Kurt’s front door. In Miami, Reef is experimenting with the use of robots to deliver meals, a move that some analysts believe Deliveroo is bound to copy in the years to come. In China – where the nexus between food delivery platforms and dark kitchens is more advanced, and the market has been sewn up by two of the country’s biggest tech giants, Alibaba and Tencent – data and automation have combined to enable the creation of specialist production sites engineered to churn out a single popular dish without any human involvement at all. Most people currently think of Deliveroo as an app that connects local restaurants with delivery drivers. But standing in West Green Road, with dark kitchens rapidly closing in, it’s hard not to suspect that the ultimate aim of the venture-capitalist subsidised food tech industry might be to do away with both.
In the meantime, however, Deliveroo still has to contend with real humans and restaurants, many of which are increasingly unafraid to kick up a fuss. Earlier this month, striking Deliveroo riders in central London protested for a living wage on the day of the firm’s stock market launch. On arrival at Deliveroo’s headquarters, where City of London police officers guarded the doors, the president of the Independent Workers of Great Britain trade union, which represents some of the delivery workers, addressed the crowd. “While the pandemic has been going on and you’ve been putting your lives and your families’ lives at risk to deliver food,” Alex Marshall yelled through a megaphone, “this company has been getting richer and richer, even as your own pay and conditions have worsened!” More strikes, protests and legal challenges from riders are being promised. According to Deliveroo, internal polling indicates that 89% of riders are satisfied or very satisfied with the status quo and that there is “overwhelming” support for the company and its flexible labour model.
That has not prevented the emergence in recent years of an array of grassroots alternatives to the leading food delivery platforms – from regional courier collectives to online services that allow small restaurants to market delivery options directly to customers, without the use of Just Eat, Uber Eats or Deliveroo. One Deliveroo rider is helping to build an ethical food delivery platform that will shortly be launched in north London, promising a guaranteed living wage for drivers, zero-emissions vehicles and a refusal to work with large chains or dark kitchens; now, some restaurant owners are getting in on the act as well. Henal Chotai, proprietor of Red Cup Cafe in Harrow, north-west London, with his wife, Reena, is co-developing an eco-friendly delivery service called FoodeBikes; he believes that as the UK emerges from lockdown, public appetite for platforms that do a better job of supporting independent restaurants is growing fast.
“Independent restaurants in this country are on their knees right now, but at the same time the value of what we bring to society – the importance of real, human hospitality, the places where you go and form happy memories – has been magnified,” Chotai says. “We’re battered and bruised, but we’re ready to fight for our futures. So I beg everyone, when you can: go out and visit your local small restaurant, find a way of buying from them directly. We’ve been here for our local communities and we need our local communities to help us – and the country at large – get back on our feet.”
Other tech giants – Uber for taxis, Airbnb for holiday homes – have eventually come up against public and regulatory backlashes, although in many cases that has done little to clip their wings. In the wake of a recent court ruling requiring Uber to reclassify its drivers as workers rather than independent contractors, Deliveroo may soon be heading in the same direction. In the end, however, neither minor legislative tweaks nor individual consumer choices alone will be enough to turn the tide, unless we decide as a society that the food delivery platform model as it’s currently conceived will damage things we care about, such as local restaurants or workers’ rights.
Badger argues that Deliveroo is a product of the economic and political systems that sustain it; if we want it to function differently, then we have to start there. “This is a company that reflects and replicates the structures of monopolistic venture capital,” he says. “For decades, we had a takeaways market that wasn’t monopolistic – it was the opposite, it was fragmented and local. Then speculative financial interests came in to change that. Yes, there are existing regulations, particularly on labour rights, which Deliveroo should be made to adhere to, and new ones that should be brought in. But more broadly, if we want Deliveroo to have better priorities then we all have to fight for a better society. Deliveroo are not the problem on their own.”
Deliveroo is continuing to expand: the company plans to set up in 100 more British towns this year and hopes to eventually become the first thing that any of us think about whenever we think about food. “Our mission is to be the definitive online food company,” the firm announced recently. “The way we think about it is simple: there are 21 meal occasions in a week – breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. Right now, less than one of those 21 transactions takes place online. We are working to change that.”
In one sense, the company is right: transformations in how we eat are inevitable. The history of the takeaway has been evolving ever since the Roman empire served on-the-go lentils in thermopolia and Aztec market vendors flogged tamales; it would be a mistake to romanticise a culinary past in which various forms of exploitation have been omnipresent. But it is worth remembering that every reconfiguration of the way we live and the resources we rely on, including restaurants, meals and the people who produce and deliver them, involves a reconfiguration of power, creating winners and losers. Global investors are gambling billions on an app-driven, dark kitchen-dominated future, and it’s clear who will emerge triumphant if that future materialises.
“We, this street, everyone round here … we’ve helped make Deliveroo rich,” Kurt says. “But is what’s good for them going to be good for us?” The answer to that question – for Shukran Best Kebab and thousands of other small restaurants like it – is in our hands.