The Coronavirus Puts Restaurants at the Mercy of the Tech Industry
Social distancing is pushing restaurants toward delivery-only models powered by tech platforms
Bua Vanitsthian says she’s always been passionate about food. In 2019, Vanitsthian, a forensic economist and professional bikini athlete, opened Chicken as Cluck, a fried chicken restaurant on the edge of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood.
It’s not a restaurant in any conventional sense, however. As a “ghost kitchen,” the Nashville-style eatery lacks a physical dining location. Instead, cooks prepare dishes from a commissary space on Cesar Chavez Street alongside other virtual restaurants such as MAC’D, a popular mac and cheese spot, and Holy Cluck, a West Coast wings chain. Search for an image of Chicken as Cluck on Google Maps, and all you’ll find is an industrial-looking warehouse.
After California issued a statewide social distancing order because of the coronavirus, industry lobbyists warned that nearly a third of California’s restaurants could go out of business without certain policy changes.
But for Chicken as Cluck, things “started picking up a lot,” Vanitsthian told OneZero. “Since a lot of our competitors have closed, we’re fortunate to stay busy.” The restaurant now supports a team of five employees, including someone whose only job is running orders to delivery drivers waiting outside.
The restaurant industry can be a brutal place, characterized by low wages and impossible hours with no guarantee of success. Even before the coronavirus landed, independent restaurants were seeking new ways to survive; in North America, thousands of ghost kitchens (also known as “dark kitchens”) and delivery apps promised new revenue streams. Uber founder Travis Kalanick last year launched the most visible of these, called CloudKitchens, a well-funded startup that flips undesirable real estate into commissary kitchens, or commercial cooking spaces shared by restaurants, caterers, and food and beverage businesses.
Had Vanitsthian opted for a traditional restaurant, she says, “I’d never break even in my life.” Punching numbers into a calculator, she estimates that 10% of their monthly income goes toward rent, on par with restaurant…