Cloud kitchens are changing the way we eat

They are disrupting the food industry by empowering consumers

A GrabFood delivery driver takes a selfie after picking up orders of the limited edition K-pop band "BTS Meal" from a McDonald's branch in Bangkok on July 16. AFP
Powered by automated translation

The vast potential of digital transformation is changing everything – from how we bank, how and where we work, and how we receive health care. It has also transformed the way we eat.

The Covid-19 pandemic showed us the value of food delivery services, providing ever greater choice and the ability for restaurateurs to listen and respond in real-time to what customers want. This has flipped the food services industry on its head, putting power into the hands of the customer like never before. Welcome to the world of "appetite activism".

In an era where convenience is king, digital food delivery has given restaurateurs the opportunity to give the public what they want, when they want it. Where traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants would introduce menus and invite customers to come try their food, the new wave of "brick and click" establishments creates the same kind of customer feedback loop as online retailers. You can call it the "Amazon Prime effect".

Hungry customers can shop around in a vast new market of cafes and restaurants and every decision they make – from the type of cuisine or dish they order, to dietary preferences, to the time of day they turn to their delivery apps – tells us more about who they are and what they want. Only those who listen and respond will do well. This is where the power of data analytics is most effective.

Cloud kitchens are currently worth $43 billion globally, expected to reach $71bn by 2027
Allied Market Research

Under the broader concept of Internet of Things, we are now witnessing the emergence of what we call the "Internet of Great Food" – embedded technology across multiple touchpoints that allows us to better identify our customers. The data collected from across the entire ecosystem of food delivery feeds back into a virtual loop of improvement and adaptation: when we order, what we order, how often we order it and the feedback we provide. This allows us, as providers, to develop new menus and concepts that are tailored to specific local communities.

Data also allows us to easily eradicate bad practices and improve quality. Just as consumers tend to avoid disreputable sellers on eBay or Amazon, there is a natural pivot towards delivery providers that adopt sustainability protocols. Analytics also allow us to understand in real time how to create new concepts that speak to the preferences and needs of customers. And, in a world of increasingly politicised food production, customers are able to have an impact on how food is grown, processed and transported. We must listen.

Increasingly, people want locally sourced produce that reduces the carbon footprint of what we eat when it reaches the front door. Figures show that in the UAE, at least 20 per cent of all fruit and vegetables consumed in the country are grown locally.

The appetite for local produce has become so great that it has spurred public and private sector investment in agricultural technologies that have made mass production of fruit and vegetables viable in the UAE.

In March, UAE agritech start-up Pure Harvest Smart Farms raised $50 million – only three months after raising $10m. This is an entirely new industry that is being driven by an insatiable appetite for local produce.

The direction of travel is clear: a far more self-conscious consumer that seeks to make ethical choices where possible. Plant-based food is a case in point: a phenomenon driven not only by vegetarians and vegans but by mainstream shoppers choosing to reduce their intake of meat. We still want our sausages and pizzas, lattes and burgers – but we do not want the meat. Even McDonalds has jumped on the bandwagon, with the launch of a new McPlant menu.

But for consumers, it is more than a bandwagon: it is a serious, conscious lifestyle choice driven by a new understanding of the impact that mass food production has on the natural world – and what it does to our insides. For the smart restaurateur or food delivery service, analytics enable us to truly understand these societal changes and they represent an enormous opportunity to step up to give the "appetite activists" what they demand. This is also where the digital transformation and the "cloud kitchen" step in.

Cloud kitchens are currently worth $43 billion globally according to Allied Market Research and the market is expected to reach $71bn in value by 2027. They are disrupting the industry by empowering consumers to drive what food manufacturers make, rather than the other way around. When cloud or micro-kitchens listen, they have the ability to democratise food for our communities by creating great food that meets the demands of local customers.

To effect real and lasting change, we must, as an entire industry, recognise that we have no choice but to listen to our electors – those who decide which restaurant wins or loses in the race towards sustainability. If we listen, we can make the world a better place.

Jihad El-Eit is the founder and chief executive of the UAE-based macroscale cloud kitchen business kaykroo

Published: July 18, 2021, 8:30 AM