this Lyon incubator looking to support the revival of the “dark kitchen”

Lyon is already recognized as one of the temples of French gastronomy: what if the city is also one of the pillars of a new restaurant fashion that seems both questioning and tantalizing: dark kitchens?

These new catering brands, often positioned in niche markets (sushi, Thai catering, poke balls, Haitian dishes, tacos, etc.) have no storefronts, and their customers often only know them through home delivery platforms (Uber eat, Deliveroo, Just eat).

However: this catering concept, which is only available for delivery, is developing. With some advantages because they often require very few resources (no room service, or even restaurant space), for chefs who can sometimes cook burgers and Thai dishes, under two different brands, within the same kitchen. All of this for mini-restaurants, whose showcase is essentially digital, and marketing budget, digitally oriented.

At Auvergne Rhône-Alpes, it’s even become a project of three friends, who have a project to launch their own “brand” together, before implementing it in another form: ” When we wanted to set up in Lyon in 2019, we went looking for a place. And it’s clear that over time, most of the places we found weren’t suitable for this activity, or required too much work.s”, asserts Raphaël Roques, president of Food’Lab.

Before continuing: What it tells us is that our real estate agent told us he is receiving more requests of this type,” he explained.

A year later, they put 700,000 euros on the table (mainly accompanied by a banking pool) and opened their first incubator in 2020, which has housed about twenty tenant brands (such as King marcel, Fuzi, Frites later!, Aloha green burger, Makin Thaï, etc.) at three locations in Lyon, Villeurbanne and Grenoble.

A pivot where they are also rapidly joining competing initiatives, such as the Toulouse Popafood project. “ It would be nice if our concept was imitated, it proves that there is demand and need “, summary, good player, co-founder.

Because until now to open a restaurant, you had to go through a place that was able to receive the public, and therefore had access to a large room. Whereas in this dark kitchen concept, the kitchen itself is the heart of the reactor.

“We don’t need a room, but a space in the kitchen to do the preparations. Very often, however, we face the question of cost: because in order to find a room equipped with the extraction duct we need, we have to choose the restaurant and the room, and very often buy back good intentions. Raphael Roques.

Contractor’s fantasy in his garage, to lift

Results? The three friends have decided to start remodeling the premises (often old car garages, industrial premises, etc.), most often located within a metropolitan area ” but not necessarily in the city center.

With the ambition to then lease it to a project leader who wants to use one or more catering brands for delivery, or even now for take-away:

“We are in a hybrid format, wanting to offer a space where brand consumers can then come and pick up their order by clicking and collecting, to open the kitchen and uncover concepts”, explained the president of Food’Lab. .

Because behind the term dark kitchen, there is often fear and fantasy – just like the entrepreneur preparing his order in the garage – but also reservation, on the part of catering professionals, who sometimes scream against unfair competition. .

In Lyon, Raphaël Roques believes the protests did not take place, but aroused the caution of actors, with the exception of a network of chambers of commerce and crafts, with which the incubator claims to have signed a partnership, with a view to identifying the young nuggets.

Instead, Food’Lab proposes to provide its residents with a charter of good practice, as well as a selection process for organized concepts, in addition to proposing offers of professional premises for rent, meeting the latest standards.

Completely redoing the kitchen to a standard represents an average investment of 50,000 euros, while project leaders then have to invest an average of 25,000 euros, including 5,000 in entry fees, to then install their own cooking utensils in it. “, details Raphaël Roques.

The amount, however, is much lower than for business purchases. All this for a flexible and fast formula, which makes it possible to launch an activity from scratch within a month, with the proposal also to collect fees with specific partners (kitchen designer, food supplier, etc.).

In addition, Food’Lab is also relying on its concepts to help structure this growing market. Because while there are certain standards that must be respected (operating license training, HACCP standards, point of sale declaration to the directorate of the department in charge of population protection, etc.) he realized that this nascent sector still needed to gradually structure itself.

“It’s the same with delivery deals, where we’re seeing on the one hand big players like Just Eat starting to pay their teams, and on the other, developing alternative concepts like Lyon Eats. “, added Raphaël Roques. Instead of blaming one sector, the co-founder of Food’Lab prefers to accompany and convince.

50 new concepts to welcome next year

Results? Food’Lab started by offering three locations in Lyon (Monchat district), Villeurbanne (Charpennes metro station) and Grenoble (Alliés district) that can now accommodate 19 kitchens (sometimes several brands per project leader). While still eyeing a strong acceleration starting next year.

“We plan to welcome up to fifty new projects by 2022, and sixty by 2023.” To double the size of their company, the three friends are in the fundraising stage, and hope to collect a million euro envelope this year.

With in their bag the good score achieved by the virtual catering market, already growing by 20% “before Covid” in 2019 according to a survey by the company Food Service Vision, and that the health crisis will only accelerate. The numbers that allowed them also conquered new cities, such as Clermont-Ferrand or Rennes.

If they’re still cautious about some of the new target cities, it’s also because the market was booming before the health crisis, and has since passed another milestone. Now there are startups weighing up, like French Taster, which was created by a former Deliveroo employee and which has raised nearly $50 million since its founding for its various brands (Out Fry, A Burgers, Stacksando and Bian dang).

Among the young concepts that are essentially digitally supported, the Lyon incubator itself admits it has found a different profile: “ We looked at several scenarios: an established company, which wants to develop a new collection point to differentiate their flow, and thus not annoy their customers at the table with the comings and goings of shippers, but also small project operators who want to start in a more flexible way before ended up switching to a restaurant with rooms afterwards “, added Raphaël Roques.

Proof that the request exists, Food’Lab has received nearly 80 applications, currently pending. “Since McDonald’s started offering take-out on Uber Eats, it’s definitely a sign that the market is ripe for new concepts.”

With in the end, an evolution that, according to him, would make it possible to— create a new niche concept » but also from “to revitalize traditional cuisine, as well as the types of dishes served theres”.

However, the Food’Lab co-founder believes that dark kitchens do not mark the death of traditional catering and table service, which remains another form of experience “ that consumers want to continue to coexist.

“Those two kinds of experiences are not to be fought. The real competition from dark kitchens is more in dealing with physical buildings, which will not offer added value or customer experience,” said Raphaël Roques.