Don’t be afraid of the dark: how has the COVID-19 pandemic changed where our food comes from?

Don’t be afraid of the dark: how has the COVID-19 pandemic changed where our food comes from?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in so many ways, some very likely permanently. Nowhere do we see this more than in the way we consume and purchase goods. In the second of two articles on this topic, Katy Sayer guides us through the hidden world of dark stores and dark kitchens, to find out where our groceries and meals are really coming from – and to ask what this means for companies needing to build and protect their brands in this new and growing space.

Dark stores (such as Getir, Weezy and Gorillas Grocery) are local fulfilment centres where grocery retailers are able to store their produce and distribute therefrom. They differ from your local Tesco or Sainsbury’s store in that they’re not visible or accessible to customers in the usual physical form of a shop. They offer delivery-only services, saving on overheads by not being consumer-facing, thereby acting as a cost-effective solution for suppliers. Services are typically hyper-local and rapid – with food arriving in as little as 10 minutes from app to door.

Similarly, in dark kitchens (utilised by platforms such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats), food is cooked on-site and then delivered to your door, with no eat-in or collection services available. Acting as efficient production units that are optimised for takeaway delivery, dark kitchens have no storefront[1]. Some restaurants even share premises for maximum efficiency as a cost-effective solution in the takeaway industry. Food under multiple virtual brands can thus be prepared in the same kitchen simultaneously, serving multiple demographics from the same source[2]. Dark kitchens also enable restaurants to experiment easily with new menus, concepts and brands, since there are no physical premises to take into account as food trends change.
With consumers interfacing with dark kitchens and dark stores only virtually suppliers and restaurants aren’t able to rely on the usual pulls of attractive signage and interiors to entice consumers. The virtual world is the only sphere in which consumers interact with these so-called “dark” entities, meaning that branding online takes on a whole new level of importance. This lack of physical presence may well push dark entities to invest more in creating and promoting their brands through the only way possible, so that they can build and maintain a strong online presence and connect in particular with younger, more internet-savvy generations.

Brand protection is accordingly crucial for these kinds of dark companies. Registering your trade mark can help protect and strengthen your brand. Registered design rights and copyright may also prove fruitful for owners of dark entities. Dark kitchen start-up Kitchen Ventures uses a network of dark kitchens in central London and has a portfolio of virtual brands. They also plan to license existing brands. For dark businesses, their branding may be the most valuable asset they have, and good intellectual property management is key to protecting and exploiting this, to maximise licensing and other commercial opportunities.
Based on key principles of flexibility, adaptability and automation, dark stores and kitchens also rely on technology to access user data and determine demand by locality and product type [3]. Algorithm-driven optimisation to lower overheads and increase output [4] is key to the success of dark entities, so behind the scenes we see that technology is just as important as virtual branding.

The Food & Drink sector has quickly evolved, taking advantage of and fast-tracking developments which were, in some cases, already in the pipeline. There is a huge opportunity for the sector to tune in to and take advantage of changing consumer trends for purchasing and consuming in a cashless, virtual world. If you’re a F&D business, your intellectual property needs to work harder for you than ever before – but the potential rewards are greater than ever.
If you would like to know more and find out how we might be able to help your Food & Drink business, please get in touch. We would love to be part of your journey. But more than that, we understand your sector. Against the commercial backdrop which is already familiar to us, we work hard to get to know your business and its own individual needs, providing tailored, pragmatic advice and building a genuine partnership.

If you have any questions, please get in touch with Katy, or your usual Kilburn & Strode advisor.

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