A business model that seemed marginal before the coronavirus pandemic now looks like the future of restaurants – mobile restaurants.
Zomato and Swiggy may be the biggest restaurant search apps in India, but their CEOs don’t always swipe and wait for 45 mins to get unfresh food, they just step out for fresh and crispy lunch. They just go downstairs and join a bunch of top executives from Apple, Facebook, GSK and Vistara for a quick meal or snack at one of the mobile restaurants parked below their office buildings.
The experience of going to a restaurant is all but over, visiting and opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in these times is high-risk and expensive, whereas ghost kitchens on wheels or cloud kitchen on wheels are lower-risk, offering a more affordable way for entrepreneurs to enter the business. In most cities, opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant requires a gauntlet of permits and inspections; restaurateurs waiting on permits might and themselves paying months of rent for space they aren’t yet allowed to use. Hungry Wheels mobile restaurants are registered as mobile food facilities, which tend to have fewer permitting requirements.
The mobile restaurants form Hungry Wheels are phygital retail points on wheels themselves, the business details are configurable: Hungry Wheels offers leasing and loans, short-term leases. Unlike, the brands operating Cloud Kitchens which are “virtual” and created to solely serve the aggregators demand. The branding and food are real, mobile restaurants can exist anywhere in the physical world; pop-up in your apartment parking or your factory, even come to your neighbourhood park, based on demand. Plus gets additional revenue as a Cloud Kitchen On Wheels.
Ideal for those Hungry to grow while building a brand, saving opex, having zero location risk – all at the lowest investment possible.
Using data from searches, Hungry Wheels identifies opportunities for certain cuisines in various neighborhoods, then approaches existing brick-and-mortar restaurateurs to pitch them the idea of launching a mobile restaurant. “Mobile Restaurants are meant to be a demand-generation tool for our restaurant partners,” Vikram Sood.
Vikram Sood, CEO at Hungry Wheels, said. “We partner with a restaurant to spin up mobile restaurants, to fulfill that cuisine gap. We’ll provide the high-level cuisine insight. And then we take it one step further, and provide a list of menu items within that cuisine type that are also in high demand. So we provide that granular menu-level insight.” During the pandemic, Hungry Wheels piloted a ‘Cloud Kitchen On Wheels’ initiative, in which existing restaurants leased the mobile kitchen space for delivery.
Brick-and-mortar restaurants, Commissary Kitchens, Central kitchens to expand their delivery footprint can operate ten brands from a single mobile kitchen.
For the people working in a ghost kitchen or a cloud kitchen, there is nothing special about that environment. As in most restaurants, they are a ghost for customers; the ghosts are the workers themselves. The logic of food-delivery platforms is the logic of the digital marketplace. Just as there might be four different Amazon listings, under four different brand names, for the same USB cable, a sandwich produced in a mobile restaurant might appear on multiple menus with different names.
Unlike a neighbourhood restaurant with a ten-year lease, digital brands are not necessarily angling for timelessness and longevity. There is also the opportunity for informal A/B testing: restaurant operators can change the location and update restaurant names, logos, menu items, and menu photography at their own discretion.
Like any platform, food-delivery apps have their own content-moderation problems. Many a restaurant owner has learnt only too late that her restaurant had been listed on a delivery platform without her consent, and deliveries were being made from an imposter kitchen. Such incidents pointed to a power imbalance between restaurateurs and delivery platforms, many of which list restaurants on their apps without permission or consultation.
With many closed brick-and-mortar locations in 2020, after nearly twenty years in business, many brands are now planning to operate – only – via Cloud Kitchens On Wheels. Mobile kitchens can also work as a sort of triage effort for restaurants that are doing well.
Recently, owners of an upscale North Indian restaurant chain in Bengaluru and Mumbai we spoke with, told Hungry Wheels they planned to move to a mobile-cloud-kitchen model: a central commissary kitchen will supply food to a network of twenty mobile-only kitchens, where it can be reheated and delivered. (They will continue to operate 10% of the brick-and-mortar locations as well, the locations where they own the real-estate.)
The restaurant industry in the country have been experimenting with LOGOUT (NRAI) or off-platform methods, such as employing in-house, neighbourhood delivery runners, or fulfilling pickup orders through point-of-sale apps. Legacy and higher-end restaurants brands, now offer meal kits and prepackaged food – young restaurateurs don’t think for a second about using aggregators, as in their experience during Covid19 this has become a highway robbery with what they charge, percentage-wise, one restaurateur told us. People in restaurants work so hard, and the margins are so slim. It’s an implicit class thing: blue-collar workers, but the margins are going to the software developers.
During the pandemic “Restaurants are the new manufacturing of India, in every town and city, little factories producing food,” he said. “I believe the time for mobile cloud-kitchens is now, they can help someone out of a job establish a brand, that has no headaches of the real-estate model. Restaurants are not going anywhere. Everything is going to reopen. What might change is how it gets to you.” Mobile restaurants are a little surreal: the shape-shifting nature of brands and menus; the creation of the spontaneous, collective, social dimensions of dining outdoors; the merging of user experience with human labour, like a culinary alchemist.
Mobile Cloud Kitchens are creating the “Fifteen-Minute City”.
In Paris, Mr. Hidalgo, ran for re-election on the platform of a “Fifteen-Minute City”: a plan for Parisians to access commerce, health-care services, education, and the workplace within a fifteen-minute stroll or bike ride from their front doors. Portland and Melbourne have pursued similar “twenty-minute neighbourhood” initiatives, which aim to allow residents to meet a range of needs within a short distance. These all represent a turn away from reliance on privately owned vehicles, and from the “Euclidean” zoning of the twentieth century, in which cities were carved up according to use, fostering sprawl and exacerbating segregation and inequality. Land-use regulations often preclude convenience: even densely populated residential neighborhoods in urban areas can find themselves without pharmacies or grocery stores. The pandemic has intensified these inequalities, particularly for those whose access to basic resources is contingent on public transportation. Stocking up is a car owner’s game. There is something utopian about Hungry Wheels’ project, which inspires visions of greener, less congested, more accessible cities, in which zero-emission fleets zip around and people congregate for cocktails in rooftop gardens, planted atop defunct parking structures or in public parks.
Hungry Wheels is also speaking to operators who are considering plans for drive-in movie theatres, open-air retail and drive-in mobile restaurant parks in urban centres and on highways.
Hungry Wheels believes open-air and outdoor experiences industry is set to boom, and than ever, we all now need to spend more time with nature.