Food factories
From virtual brands to kitchen labs, the delivery market is swallowing up Italy’s food service industry. Even restaurants are now working for the platforms

October 17, 2023

Laura Carrer

The tables, the service, the smells wafting from the kitchen and the orders: if there is one thing that Italians haven’t been able to give up even during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is going to restaurants. This quintessentially Italian habit starts with the ingredients and ends with the preparation of the food. According to estimates by the Italian Federation of Public Establishments for 2020, there are 188,631 restaurants in Italy, mainly in Lombardy and Lazio. In 2020, just over 9,000 restaurant businesses opened their doors to customers who decided to eat out between Covid waves, but as many as 22,000 closed down for good.

Between the Covid-19 pandemic and the government-imposed lockdowns that lasted well beyond the spring of 2021, the food service industry has undergone major changes in a short space of time. Walking through the streets of Milan for the past few months, one comes across more and more small establishments on street corners, often in the city centre or just outside, blending into the urban jungle. Couriers pull up to their (often unmarked) windows, especially during lunch and dinner hours. They approach the glass, checking on the orders they have come to collecting, then wait. It’s difficult to say for how long. It may depend on the owners, who start cooking the food just as the drivers appear because they were not sure when they would arrive, or on the digital platforms, which do not notify of the driver’s departure. When everything aligns, a hand reaches out of the window to deliver the package.

They go by different names, but they all follow a common thread: dark kitchens, ghost kitchens and cloud kitchens are businesses that do not offer the classic face-to-face interaction with the customer, but rather produce food and then entrust it to the food delivery platforms. The dark kitchen is simply a portion of the (proprietary) kitchen of a restaurant made available for delivery, while the ghost kitchen is a restaurant model created in a kitchen-lab, where a restaurant owner develops one or more delivery-only or takeout-only culinary concepts.

A cloud kitchen, on the other hand, is the creation of an entrepreneur – often without a food service background – with several kitchens that share the same space, but are not connected to each other except for the sharing of costs and online brand advertising. At any rate, all the three types of kitchens work with and for digital delivery platforms.

What is a culinary brand?
Virtual restaurants, also called virtual brands, are nothing more than restaurants with a very small menu and generally producing only one type of dish. Burritos or burgers are a classic example. Another difference from traditional restaurants is that they do not necessarily have a physical presence within the city; the food is often cooked in cloud kitchens.

Some of these virtual brands bear the names of established restaurants that are simply relying on the cloud kitchen system, while others (the majority) are created within these 3.0 kitchens. Their design, down to the smallest detail, is optimised for high performance on the internet, more than in the production of food (they tend to sell very simple and well-known dishes). This is why the term brand, borrowed from economic and marketing terminology, clearly signals the direction that digital platforms are taking up towards a redefinition of the sector.

Kitchens 3.0: virtual, serial, fast

Ghost kitchens and dark kitchens are still actual restaurants with owners who decide to exploit the market provided by the platforms to expand their customer base. It’s really nothing new, simply an addition to the takeout places that increasing numbers of Chinese restaurants started operating in the early 2000s. Cloud kitchens, on the other hand, develop a genuine new business model that defines restaurants not based on their physical presence in the city, but through the concept of the cloud as an invisible container for a variety of dishes.

No more red-and-white checkered tablecloths, no more flagging down a waiter to ask for the bill. The dining room and the waiters are not really in the picture. The inside of a cloud facility houses several kitchens (usually three or four, up to six if the space allows it) that produce different foods, recreating more than one restaurant in the same place. In one corner, pasta is rolled according to an Emilian recipe; in another, burritos, poké, burgers and cannoli are prepared. The kitchens are entrusted to restaurant owners who have decided to invest in the cloud kitchen business model.

Seen from the street, they are particularly interesting: they tend to have no signage identifying their name, presence or purpose. Some bear the names of food delivery platforms, while others are almost invisible to the distracted gaze of a passer-by. Everything happens online: on the main social networks, virtual brands and their dishes are offered to customers ordering from home with visually alluring images. The restaurant is not advertised by the manager or the chef who prepares the dishes, but by the system that the cloud kitchen owner created.

The access ramp to the Helbiz cloud kitchen in Milan. The kitchen was created inside the premises of a former car dealership – Image: Luca Quagliato

Many so-called virtual brands (that is, restaurants) started in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the initial investment is much lower than that required to open a traditional restaurant. One chef in a cloud kitchen told IrpiMedia how he decided to start one after closing his restaurant outside Milan: by investing only a few tens of thousands of euros, he was able to have a kitchen up and running in less than a month. «It is an experiment, and I am still investing money in buying a restaurant in the centre of Milan, which is very expensive. This is a valuable experience, and I plan to carry on with it».

In these cloud kitchens, restaurant owners pay the costs of the kitchen monthly to the entrepreneur who opened it, as well as a fee based on the performance of their virtual brands. All these terms are much more reminiscent of corporate language than of culinary techniques such as flambé, glazing or mantecatura.

Riders waiting outside a cloud kitchen in Milan – Image: Luca Quagliato
Picking up a delivery from the counter of a ghost kitchen in Milan – Image: Luca Quagliato

Food delivery is the primary point of contact with customers: food is created to be transported. Packaging is chosen based on its ability to withstand temperature changes, keeping the food warm and protected for long stretches of time. The food service industry is effectively working to serve digital food delivery platforms.

Working for digital platforms

Cloud kitchens are the missing link in the current delivery chain, bringing the customer and digital multinationals even closer together. By bringing new brands on the road to delivery, they only broaden the market for the big platforms. To an outsider, it’s no longer just the riders or customers (with their data and preferences) working for JustEat, Glovo, UberEats or Deliveroo, but also these new kitchens, providing a glimpse into the habits and tastes of those who order food.

The storefront of a cloud kitchen in Milan – Image: Luca Quagliato

At the moment, however, there seems to be no agreement between cloud kitchens and the platforms, especially with regard to statistics, data and information on food preparation. Since cloud kitchens do not have yet a specific function, their presence can potentially benefit platforms in the growing expansion of customer deliveries. In addition, they can replace the role of platforms in their relationship with riders (more so than ghost and dark kitchens), which is almost non-existent now, as there are no proper communication channels for any issues concerning their work. The physical spaces cloud kitchens occupy can be defined as a reference point for riders, although it is still too early to tell.

Inside, with some variations, the premises are generally sparse: a kitchen, a counter and a couple of screens that inform the cooks of the next order in the queue, the ingredients and the scheduled time for collection through a management system. At the entrance sits the kitchen manager, who is in charge of managing relations with and between kitchens, with a few customers waiting outside, and giving out packages to the riders who knock on the glass to collect their orders. The manager also monitors all the lined up devices connected to all the virtual restaurants hosted by the platform. The devices work nonstop, with buttons to press to talk to the kitchens, ringing with each new order.

The desk of a cloud kitchen in Milan to which IrpiMedia had access. Tablets and devices are connected to a centralised management system that distributes orders to the kitchens – Image: Luca Quagliato

The business model that governs this new marketplace maximises the efficiency of the food creation process (potentially from appetiser to dessert) and combines it with the speed of delivery operated by riders, now thousands-strong in Milan. All of this takes place under the control of the digital platform market. Given the way they are advertised, these businesses seem more like food factories with online marketing, technology and social networks on their side. These combined factors reduce the investment costs for food service and allow the launch of several brands at the same time.

Aiming higher

When we met Paolo (not his real name), who has been a chef for five years, he had just left his job at a Milanese deli. He started working for Glovo, not as a rider or because he had a restaurant, but because he answered an ad for a chef trainer. During his working day, he talks to restaurant owners who are interested in joining GlovoConcepts, a side business of the delivery platform, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic forced restaurants to shut down for several months. Thanks to its widespread presence and the amount of information it possesses, Glovo has decided to branch out by identifying the latest news and trends in the culinary sector, and then developing them within its own labs. «The idea started in Spain in September 2020. Through market analysis, Glovo is looking for brands that can be approached, based of course on the city where they are seeking to expand its market», Paolo says.

«At that point – assuming that takeout burritos or tacos can work as a concept – Glovo comes up with a special menu for restaurant owners to cook with the right ingredients. Glovo also provides the materials for transport and the graphics for advertising», Paolo continues. He sells the restaurant owner a contract similar to a McDonald’s franchise contract, but at a much lower price. When choosing restaurants, Glovo prefers small businesses that already have a relationship with the company: the weaker links in the chain. In doing so, Glovo adopts an economic model referred to in economics and marketing as the “long tail”, based on the sale large numbers of best-selling products, as well as many different items in smaller amounts. Amazon is a prime example of this model.

The collection point for meals prepared in the Kuiri cloud kitchen in Milan. The screen above displays the queue of orders being prepared and those ready for collection by platform riders – Image: Luca Quagliato

After signing the contract, the restaurant owner who until recently only had a pizzeria will now also cook tacos or hamburgers for customers who rely on Glovo for deliveries. This is a novel idea that goes beyond the still-vague definition of “kitchen 3.0”: a restaurant owner no longer needs to hire staff or buy ingredients (except by relying directly on Glovo-appointed suppliers who deliver frozen foods), and can prepare dishes similar to those that were already on the menu.

There is certainly a lot more data and information from the Spanish multinational than what normal cloud kitchens can produce and jealously guard. One wonders, at this point, whether food delivery platforms will dictate what restaurateurs should cook so they don’t go out of business, and what customers should consume just because they choose to rely on home delivery. Burritos, tacos, hamburgers are ordered, rather indiscriminately, in Lazio, Sardinia, Lombardy and Sicily because, as Paolo recounts, «Those who have owned a restaurant for forty years are having to change the way they work, but do not have enough money to do so. They have the advantage of a granular presence, which helps Glovo achieve its goal: to create dishes that are recognised as “Glovo burritos”, exactly in the same way as McDonald’s hamburgers».

The interior of one of the Kuiri brand cloud kitchens in Milan. Each kitchen is independent customised according to the specific needs of the brand – Image: Luca Quagliato
At first glance, it seems that digital platforms have fully entered the Italian food service industry at large, and not just the delivery market. In the future, restaurants will likely be physical places where people can eat lobster or drink vintage wine, while delivery, a more portable and less refined option, will replace everything else. One thing is certain: once again, digital platforms are making giant strides in an extremely important sector of the Italian economy, much faster than a casual observer can notice the appearance of a small shop window from which a rider grabs a package, or before there is a clear legal framework to distinguish between work and competition.



Laura Carrer


Luca Quagliato


Luca Rinaldi

With the support of

European Cultural Foundation