Reef, a Parking Company, Ushers in Our Ghost Kitchen Future

Anna Wiener, the New Yorker:

For now, though, Reef is focussing on food preparation as a test case — a proof of concept for other sorts of “applications” that might make sense in some later, future time. Food prep is a sensible first experiment for Reef’s modular approach to repurposing parking lots: over the past few years, delivery has been on the upswing, and delivery-only kitchens — referred to as “ghost kitchens” or “dark kitchens” — are having a moment. Reef operates kitchens across eighteen cities in the United States, in seventy-odd parking lots. In the trailer on Mission Street, meals from all six of the advertised restaurants are prepared on site — the culinary equivalent of a multicolor retractable pen. The restaurants are “internal” to Reef: designed and staffed by its employees, with menus developed by a culinary team that includes former executives from Roti Modern Mediterranean, Potbelly, and Jamba Juice. The menus lean toward comfort food, and are a little arbitrary. Wings & Things offers mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders, cronuts (“dusted with cinnamon maple sugar and served with a side of Canadian Maple dipping sauce”), Skittles, Red Bull, and two kinds of Greek-yogurt bowls.

Currently, the food offered by Reef’s internal brands comes from U.S. Foods, an international, private-equity-owned institutional food distributor that works with colleges, hotels, and hospitals, and is a wholesale supplier for independent restaurants and diners. In San Francisco, the menu items are delivered to a central commissary in the Bayview area, and come individually wrapped; precise assembly instructions are provided to line cooks. Every night, Reef’s trailers, which are managed under a subsidiary, Vessel CA, return to the commissary, where the gray-water tanks are drained, the potable-water tanks are refilled, and the refrigerators are restocked. Reef has ambitions to offer fresher, more sophisticated fare, eventually. But, for now, customers may find themselves paying a premium for meals similar to those found at a fast-food restaurant, or in a supermarket freezer.

One of these trailers recently appeared in an Impark lot near where I can live; at night, I watch countless delivery drivers park on the sidewalk to grab orders as cooks shoo away anyone who comes knocking at its door. It has eight brands listed on the side, including three for burgers and two for chicken wings, but there are even more operating from the same trailer once you start poking around different delivery apps.

One wing brand charges a dollar more for delivery and a few bucks more for equivalent wings; until recently, they used the same photography. Two of the burger brands use identical images and offer many of the same items as the wing brands, including mozzarella sticks and chicken wings. By my count, you can get the same cafeteria-grade wings at various price points from at least six different Reef brands operating from two different trailers in my area.

There is a part of me that worries that this sort of arrangement will make it untenable to operate a sit-down restaurant, particularly after the effects of the pandemic. My hope is that it will take the pressure of bowing to delivery services off traditional restaurants, many of which cannot afford the commission charged by Doordash and its ilk. But that leaves takeout operations in an awkward spot; Reef has the backing of a near billion-dollar investment from the SoftBank Vision Fund, and independent restaurants can’t compete with that kind of bottomless money pit.

Update: Perhaps the thing that bothers me most about what Reef is attempting here is that there is no sense of care. Reef’s trailers could be selling anything — shoes, haircuts, beauty products. It only cares that it has a vehicle of transforming venture capital investment into greater piles of money and, right now, it is filling that void through crappy food delivered by undercompensated gig economy workers contracted by other companies. This is not a secret:

[…] Over the past two years, though, the company’s narrative has changed somewhat: Reef’s executives now emphasize their work in “creating the next phase of a neighborhood” by forming local logistics and mobility hubs. This year, Reef launched a partnership with Bond, a logistics startup that operates “nano-warehouses”: fulfillment centers, often in vacant storefronts, that can be used for last-mile delivery. City-dwellers may someday pick up their Amazon packages and clamshell-carton dinners in a parking lot or empty retail space, like college students dipping into the campus center before retreating back to the dorms.

For now, though, Reef is focussing on food preparation as a test case—a proof of concept for other sorts of “applications” that might make sense in some later, future time. […]

I’m nervous because some of my favourite restaurants in Calgary might struggle to survive through this pandemic. There are many places here that would break my heart if they were forced to close. But nobody is going to miss the private label Reef brands if they suddenly disappear. People know when there is a lack of care.