Life

Dark Kitchens: A Gig Worker’s Journey into London’s Hidden Food Industry

I’m going to a Cantonese restaurant called T Restaurant for an interview. When I started looking for directions to the restaurant, the search results displayed on Google Maps were frustrating and confusing. The only T restaurant in London is located in Chinatown in the city center and has a beautiful restaurant website. But this is not where I want to go. Jeni, who was in charge of the interview, made it clear on the phone that their store is in the Acton area in west London.

The location Jeni sent me popped up on Whatsapp: a Shell gas station. It dawned on me that the place I was going to was a takeaway restaurant that wasn’t on the map.

That’s how I learned about dark kitchens. The so-called dark kitchen is called dark kitchen in English, also known as ghost kitchen. This kind of kitchen only provides takeout through an online platform, has no restaurant facade, and does not support door-to-door pickup. The takeout point of Restaurant T is located in a dark kitchen site (Editions) set up by the takeout delivery platform Deliveroo, and shares this space that cannot be found on the map with eight other restaurants.

On the day of the interview, I followed Jeni around to the hidden path behind the gas station. After passing two furniture stores, a car wash and a chain of self-storage warehouses, Deliveroo’s kangaroo pattern appeared in front. Deliveroo is one of the three largest food delivery platforms in the UK, along with Just Eat and Uber Eats.

This is a small-factory-sized building, and the glass at the door is covered with reflective stickers—it’s impossible to see what’s going on inside from the outside. In the parking area in front of the building, some delivery riders were sitting on their motorcycles and resting. Post-COVID-19, London’s takeaway industry has boomed, and dark kitchens have also become popular. According to statistics, in 2021, the number of takeout orders in London increased by 900,000 per week compared with the previous year. In the same year, Deliveroo’s dark kitchen sites alone expanded to 14. According to the Guardian, dark kitchens are generally located far away from residential buildings, otherwise they will suffer complaints from residents because they are too noisy. Deliveroo’s dark kitchen stations, which usually consist of several shipping containers assembled with metal shells, are eerily quiet and no one can be heard nearby. The site I came to seemed to have a pretty good environment, and it was located in a less desolate place.

Overworked but helpless

After 2016, the number of gig workers in the UK has been growing rapidly, and it is estimated that it will exceed 7 million by 2023. At present, the UK is facing the most severe inflation in 40 years, but the real wages of residents have remained unchanged. Many people work odd jobs after get off work to support their families. The competition for gig jobs in London is extremely fierce. I have submitted nearly 200 resumes on the recruitment website Indeed. According to website data analysis, 355 people like me have applied for the clerk position in the same milk tea shop, and that shop only recruits 1- 2 people. The application situation for other positions is similar, and it is not easy to get an interview opportunity.

Among all gig workers, those working for food delivery platforms account for the largest number, accounting for a quarter of the total. In addition to the well-known food delivery rider, the handyman I work as is also a part of the support system for the food delivery platform. However, the people working in the kitchen are almost like a dark kitchen and are rarely noticed. The dark kitchen opens at 12 noon and closes at 10:45 pm. Handymen and chefs spend most of their time in a workspace with no windows and no natural lighting, and then go home from get off work in the dark night.

Strong incandescent light illuminates the grid-like layout of the dark kitchen office building. All restaurants are arranged in two rows, and each restaurant can get a narrow space of more than 20 square meters. The middle corridor is filled with cargo racks, making it impossible to see the work going on in the opposite compartments. Restaurant T is next to the dishwashing room deep in the corridor. In the cubicle, the voice of a Chinese newscaster covered the Hindi pop songs coming from next door, reporting on the situation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The chef was busy frying rice, and two handymen stood in front of the packaging station to pack chili sauce. There were several stacks of steamers piled on the steaming stove, and the air was filled with the smell of cooked food mixed with steam.

There’s a lot of turnover among handymen, and I felt it the moment I stepped into the cubicle. No one seemed to want to waste any more time getting to know the newcomers on trial. The restaurant’s regular staff didn’t ask for my name. The manager greeted me with “hello” and “hey” and when I pointed out that my name was wrong on the schedule, he said he was sorry and would change it next time. Later I learned that someone had resigned just before I arrived.

Both employers and employees are well aware that the nature of gig work means that employers do not provide visa support to live locally for a long time, and sometimes do not even sign contracts. At the same time, this seems to be a hint that how long they want to stay depends on whether the gig workers want to stay. As the head chef said to me later: “You want the money, I want you to work, it’s that simple.”

Next, I will work six days a week as a full-time handyman, 11 hours a day on Friday and Saturday, and 10 hours a day the other days. I noticed on the schedule that the cook started work a quarter of an hour earlier than the handyman, and spent more time in the kitchen than I did. These are obviously extremely long hours, but are common in the restaurant and food industry. I once went to a suburban food processing plant to interview as a shop floor operator, where employees worked the same hours as in a dark kitchen. In the UK, according to the Working Time Regulations, the maximum number of hours an individual can legally work is 48 hours a week. According to a survey by the British trade union Unite, 44% of London chefs said that they work an average of 48 to 60 hours a week. They are not aware that the employment contract states that workers automatically “opt out” of the maximum working week of 48 hours, as this is often the case. It’s a hidden clause.

But even if you realize you’re working a job that’s overloading you, working odd jobs is an obvious and convenient way to save money. Two of my Indonesian colleagues have been working with this idea for five months, even though they earn the UK minimum wage of £10.42 an hour.

No room for error

No one will really tell you what a handyman has to do or how to do it. It all depends on observation and self-teaching.

Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and Indonesian alternately appear in my ears, usually the simplest command words. Eventually, I need to learn to steam dim sum, prepare vegetables, load vegetables, pack takeout, deliver takeout to the front desk, pack cooked food and sauces, order goods, process semi-finished products, clean, and occasionally replace the chef. No matter if it is your first time or not, if you do something wrong or do it slowly, you will be scolded.

All of this goes far beyond the responsibilities of a handyman. We also need to bear some of the things that the second chef is responsible for. Everything seems simple, but it is very trivial and requires a certain amount of physical strength and endurance. The mobile app shows that my daily walking distance is almost 7 kilometers. Two of my Indonesian colleagues believe that this kind of work is not the most intensive. “It’s easy to work here. There are always orders, but it’s not busier than the restaurant.” One of my colleagues, Ally, told me. She is from Sumatra, Indonesia. Before coming to T Restaurant, she worked as a waiter in another Chinese restaurant. She could not continue working because she was too tired. Now she is quite accustomed to working in a dark kitchen. Amidst the roar of the range hood, she skillfully prepared meals while wearing headphones and talking on the phone with her family.

This T restaurant takeout spot handles forty to fifty orders a day on non-weekends, and the number of orders doubles on weekends. Each order must be completed within 10 minutes. During the peak ordering period, everyone must cooperate with the entire kitchen efficiently, leaving no room for mistakes. There are two surveillance cameras installed in the compartment. In addition to our takeout point, Restaurant T also rents four or five similar spaces in other dark kitchen sites. The head chef responsible for all dark kitchen work will monitor the real-time conditions of each location through the surveillance cameras. . “You are not allowed to rest for a moment until you learn how to do everything! This is not an office!” One day, the head chef yelled at me when he saw me sitting and resting during off-peak hours.

I could feel the pressure on him. There is a daily KPI table for all restaurants posted in the corridor. It can be seen from the above that if there is a delay in meal preparation time, it may affect the restaurant’s rating on the platform application.

Not all restaurants can rent dark kitchen stalls. Deliveroo’s chief consultant Pradhan once said in an interview with the Financial Times that the restaurants in dark kitchens are carefully selected based on data from that area, based on the taste preferences of residents there and what types of cuisines are lacking. In other words, it is not that simple to cooperate with the platform, but requires luck that matches the system algorithm.

The Dark Kitchen site I am on is a newly established Edition after the epidemic. T Restaurant, Indian restaurant Dishoom and Armenian restaurant Jakobs also chose to enter dark kitchens after the epidemic. Since 2020, cooperation with takeout platforms has become a way to survive for many restaurants in London, because it may be more difficult to survive if they refuse to cooperate. On Deliveroo, every time a restaurant delivers a takeaway order, the platform gets a 35% commission. Many local small restaurant owners have complained that it is difficult to accept such a large commission, but they cannot quit the takeout platform in order to make a living.

Going through a strike

As a newcomer, I am responsible for all errands by default. I have to go to the front desk frequently with my ready-made and packaged takeout. Across the takeout shelves, I see takeout riders eagerly waiting for their meals.

Like China, all riders in the UK work with food delivery platforms as self-employers. As long as you have a mobile phone, a motorcycle, a bicycle or a car, you can become one of the riders. In order to earn more money per hour, all riders are in a hurry. Occasionally, they will run to the door of the compartment to pick up food when they are anxious.

If it weren’t for the riders’ strike that broke out on February 2, 2024, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to talk to the riders.

It was a Friday and the kitchen was twice as busy as usual. Generally speaking, a large number of orders will continue to flow into the kitchen from 4 p.m. But that day, the order system only sounded a few beeps, and the prepared takeaways were always piled at the front desk without being taken away. At around 5 o’clock, Deliveroo’s site manager appeared at the door of the cubicle and said: “Turn off the system from now on, do not accept any more orders, and wait for our next notification.”

In the kitchen cubicle, the range hood stopped working and my colleagues cheered twice in the excitement of the unexpected strike. I walked outside the dark kitchen door. It was already dark, and a large number of riders gathered in the dark parking area. They stared at the Deliveroo app on their phone screens and discussed what was happening in Hindi. The customer warning written on Deliveroo’s system stated that the delivery system was out of order and the order would be delivered later.

One of the riders chatted with me for a while. He complained to me that not only did Deliveroo take more commissions this year, but the price of gasoline has also increased. At the least, he could only earn 2.9 pounds per hour, which was far less than the minimum hourly wage I earned in the kitchen. While he is looking forward to his counterparts in areas such as Brixton, South London, continuing the strike, he also hopes that the order-taking system will be restored soon so that he can get the last few orders from the dark kitchen.

Later, I saw on the news that until 10 o’clock that night, a total of 3,000 riders were honking their horns on the roads in London and Brighton to demonstrate the strike. Riders from the two major food delivery platforms, Just Eat and Uber Eat, also joined them. Similar strikes have occurred since 2019. Until November 2023, the Supreme Court ruled that Deliveroo riders, as self-employed, had no collective bargaining rights to negotiate salaries and benefits with the platform. This makes riders even more angry, which means that it is completely legal for Deliveroo to only give riders a very low income, and riders can work up to 14 hours a day in order to maintain food and clothing.

“You must be happy. We are on strike and you don’t have to work anymore, but you still have income.” The rider said to me before leaving the parking area. In fact, before 7 o’clock, the restaurant manager announced the closure of business, and the busboys and chefs naturally lost 3 hours of income that day.

In the gig economy, on which British society increasingly relies, dark kitchens exist like a ghost. And as odd jobs in the dark kitchen, tonight, none of us still get enough respect and fair treatment.

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