The rise of 'dark kitchens' will replace the need for traditional restaurant spaces, allowing different brands and cuisines to prepare and send out food one central kitchen.
The rise of 'dark kitchens' will replace the need for traditional restaurant spaces, allowing different brands and cuisines to prepare and send out food one central kitchen.
Image: 123RF / serezniy

While most — if not all — of us would rather forget the past year, we are reminded that the effect the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown had on our restaurant industry will be felt for a long time. The way we approach food during times of crisis, isolation and hardship has and will continue too shape the food scene for the year ahead.

Here’s what we predict.

1. Austerity and survival

To call this a trend may seem callous and simplistic, but there can be no denying that the financial strain facing restaurants will continue to shape how, when and in what form they operate. For those that managed to make it to the other side of 2020, the road ahead is set to be a long and difficult one.

Attempting to make up for six months of little to no trading, and an exclusively local, “rand-based season”, means eateries will need to seriously batten down the hatches and tighten belts, many already on their last notch, to make it through winter.

Expect limited trading hours, reduced menus, and simplified dishes. This, coupled with experiences and value-adds for diners — think tasting menus, wine nights, entertainment — as restaurants compete for patrons in a struggling consumer market.

Though this may seem grim, it can also serve as an opportunity for restaurants and chefs to re-invent themselves in a minimalist-trending world — focusing on the essence of good, honest food, empowering local communities as they source seasonal produce. Less is more, as they say.

2. Independent chef pop-ups 

This trend is two-fold. On one hand, you have a slew of independent chefs who, for reasons ranging from retrenchments and closures to lockdown reflections, have had to (or, for the luckier ones, decided to) leave the traditional restaurant model behind them. On the other hand, you have a host of vacated spaces (abandoned restaurant shells, empty hotels, function venues) looking to capitalise on their unused spaces.

In the best of cases, pop-ups allow for both the chefs and venues to benefit from the experiences — offering short-term relief to venues while chefs, who can no longer afford to (or no longer want to) get tied into rental agreements, have a space to feed their customers and continue honing their craft.

3. Pop-ins from private chefs

The pandemic has also seen an uptick in — for lack of a better term— “pop-ins” by chefs to former restaurant-goers, with many gourmands preferring to dine at home, rather than out in public at a restaurant. This has offered independent chefs the opportunity to pop-in and cater private dinners and small-scale functions hosted at their patrons’ homes.

4. The rise and rise of the dark kitchens 

Whether you call it a dark, cloud, shadow or ghost kitchen, there’s plenty to suggest that this delivery-only restaurant concept is only getting started.

The idea, in essence, is a restaurant that exists solely online — no shop front, no waiters, no tables, or chairs; with menus hosted online or on delivery apps. The concept allows the running of a takeaway restaurant without the need for premium restaurant space and overheads. It also allows a kitchen to offer a range of different brands and cuisines, that are prepared and sent out from one central location.

Expedited by the pandemic, investments in these ventures has, and will continue to result in the rapid expansion and scalability of dark kitchens — and their prominence within the market.

5. SA appeal

While the idea of a singular SA cuisine is utterly absurd (our dynamic, far-reaching influences and abundance of beautiful produce allow for much more than one, linear local cuisine), restaurants will no doubt be angling for their share of the local market.

However, rather than the mere inclusion of a gourmet koeksister or a dash of Malay flavours, restaurants will appeal to locals by adapting their offerings in terms of price and time. Expect reduced course menus, rand-appropriate pricing and shorter service times — while tourists lounge at their leisure, the same isn’t always true for locals.

It’s a move that will see restructuring of the traditional tasting menu and fine dining services, so as to ensure there is always a table ready to welcome their most reliable asset — lekker locals. 

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