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The recipe is spicy: gather in the same space dozens of ovens, plates, grills, tons of condiments, vegetables, pasta, cheese, meat, fish, onion, garlic and salt, liters of oil, and various sauces, and add a controversial ex-CEO of Uber, hundreds of delivery drivers and their motorcycles, a pinch of residents frightened by the prospect of constant noise and smoke and… voilà, the controversy are served. The name of the dish? Dark Kitchen à Alvalade.

Last month, a hundred residents of the Alvalade neighborhood mobilized through a petition to try to get Lisbon City Hall to stop the installation of a dark kitchen on Centro Cultural Street.

What is a dark kitchen? Nothing less than a kitchen space ready to host dozens of virtual restaurants, with no public, only accessible through relay courier requests.

Alvalade residents fear that the days of peace on the neighborhood streets are about to end after the dark kitchen starts operating. Photo: Rita Ansone.

Cooked in a slow oven by the city council, which has not (yet) responded to the petition, the unsatisfied residents decided to go in person to a city council meeting. They exposed the issue and heard an insipid answer from councilwoman Joana Almeida, responsible for the city’s urbanism and urban planning, with the promise of a future meeting.

Meanwhile, the future “ghost kitchen” that haunts the neighbors of Alvalade is almost finished and exhaust systems to exhale the smoke from 22 kitchens can already be seen in the ceilings, according to the project of the venture to which the residents’ association had access.

Controversial former Uber CEO lands in Lisbon with his dark kitchen

On the other side of the controversy is a masterchef of the volatile economy, the American billionaire Travis Kalanick. He is the cofounder of Uber and Uber Eats, who after being controversially fired from the company he helped create started investing in these dark kitchens, with global operations under various names, all of them involved in some controversy with the neighbors.

A bad name that may end up pouring oil on the troubled waters of Portuguese entrepreneurs’ businesses who operate other dark kitchens in several cities around the country. In Lisbon, many are opting for a “Portuguese style” version of the business: less aggressive and with a sweeter relationship with the community.

Dark Kitchen. The terminology is not helpful, either in the original English or in the Portuguese translation, after all, both dark kitchens and “ghost kitchens” refer to lugubrious spaces, where employees with long white beards and black fingernails work chained by the ankle, deprived of sunlight.

While the Dark Kitchen controversy is at an impasse between residents and the City Council , the venture is almost ready for operation. Photo: Rita Ansone

The reality however has a less dramatic, more aseptic, and professional face, although one should never doubt the excess of “creativity” and capitalism’s lack of empathy in martyring employees in the name of profit.

One of the names collaborating to maintain the bad reputation of ghost kitchens is precisely that of the American Travis Kalanick, who 46 years and 4 billion dollars later, co-founded Uber and Uber Eats. Today he works in the dark kitchen business and has dark kitchens all over the world under the brands CloudKitchens and CookLane, among others.

In Portugal, Cloud Kitchens is operating under that name in Setúbal, a city in the Lisbon metropolitan area. But in Lisbon, the brand has the name CityChefs. In the text presenting the brand, there is a reference to CloudKitchens and it is said that the company’s operation is in Portugal, precisely in the Alvalade neighborhood, spelled with a typo, with an “s” at the end: “Alvalades”.

Architect João Appleton, the spokesman for the Alvalade residents’ group, spoke at the City Hall meeting. Two weeks later, he was still waiting for the promised meeting to be scheduled. Both he and the hundred or so other signatories are afraid they will begin to experience the same nightmares reported by other Kalanick neighbors.

Recently, the Financial Times and Insider newspapers published reports from former employees of the ghost kitchens in the United States, about the toxic and misogynistic philosophy in the work environment, as well as the nightmare of neighbors forced to live with noises, odors, and aggression on public roads among the deliverers.

In São Paulo, Brazil, where they operate under the name Kitchen Central, Travis Kalanick’s kitchens have also become a nightmare, leading the subprefecture of Lapa – something like a parish council in the capital city of São Paulo – to file a lawsuit to revoke the operating license of the ghost kitchens in the neighborhood.

Kitchens, an activity without ghostbusters

In Alvalade “there will be 22 kitchens installed in an area classified by the Municipal Master Plan as residential and that were not subject to an industrial licensing, without the mandatory studies to not cause environmental impact in the area, especially the traffic and parking studies,” justifies architect João Appleton.

The Lisbon City Council replied to Mensagem that “there is no specific regulation for dark kitchens”. It adds that they are considered catering and drinking establishments, and “are covered by the Legal Regime of Access and Exercise of Commerce, Service and Restaurant Activities (RJACSR, abbreviation in Portuguese), being subject to the mere prior notice procedure.”

Lisbon City Hall says it is not possible to estimate how many ghost kitchens operate in the delivery service in the city. Photo: Rita Ansone

The prior notice is the only requirement for future entrepreneurs, who are exempted by the nature of their service from the licensing suggested by the Alvalade signatories.

The City Council also says that the procedure complies with Decree-Law 48/2011, which created Zero Licensing for these types of services, which prevents the City Council from “exercising prior control over the opening of the commercial and industrial establishments covered,” the email sent to Message states.

No prior and also later control over the ghost kitchens.

In the same reply, the City Council also assumes that the lack of specific legislation makes it impossible to determine the exact number of dark kitchens operating in Lisbon. Even so, it ensures that a Working Group on Commercial Urbanism and Local Lodging (GUCAL) has been created to monitor the abuses inherent in this matter.

A relatively peaceful coexistence. So far

Lisbon City Hall may not know how many ghost kitchens operate in Lisbon, but Google does. Mensagem visited two that are on the browser’s list.

On a dock in Alcântara, bathed by the Tagus and the autumn sun, Weat looks like anything but a dark kitchen. “We are a Portuguese version of the business,” says the owner, Bernardo Rodrigues, 49, an economist who decided to spice up the numbers and did a post-graduate course in gastronomic sciences.

Bernardo Rodrigues, Weat’s owner, makes an effort to have a good relationship with the community. Foto: Rita Ansone

“We are a Portuguese version of the dark kitchens business.”

Bernardo Rodrigues, Weat

Operating since June 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, therefore, Weat has four 18-square-meter kitchens – 6 meters of those on a mezzanine – where 22 restaurants take turns. On our visit to the place, two of them were in operation and the exhaust system left no trace of food smell in the air.

“The system is half the cost of implementing the project,” Bernardo reveals. The truth is that even if the extraction system didn’t function perfectly, Bernardo was unlikely to have problems with neighbors, and for one simple reason: Weat has no neighbors.

Aired by the river breeze and flanked by offices and companies, more than resident neighbors, Weat is surrounded by potential customers. “Many of the requests are from employees of Farfetch and the Público newspaper,” he says, citing two of the companies he shares the dock with.

When Bernardo evokes a Portuguese-style version of a dark kitchen, he goes beyond the breeze and the sun. Contrary to what the book of ghost kitchens says, with no terraces or lounge, the space has an area with tables to receive about 42 clients, where face-to-face activities are constantly happening.

Weat has invested in an area to host events and a good exhaust system. The next step will be virtual terraces. Photo: Rita Ansone

“We try to make the space more dynamic with MasterChef style challenges or in the Cooking for a Cause initiative, where we bring together chefs to produce meals for Refood”, he enumerates. The interaction with the public should expand the limits of the place soon, with the creation of what the entrepreneur calls a “digital terrace”.

“It will be the first in Portugal, who knows, maybe in the world,” says Bernardo, about the idea of taking advantage of the structure of tables already set up to install QR codes to access the menus and make orders to the restaurants installed in Weat‘s kitchens. The negotiations with City Council, according to him, are already in progress.

The fact that it’s Portuguese-style management is also a way of differentiating itself from the original model, which is more “American or English-style”, Bernardo stresses, without referring directly to the kitchens run by Travis Kalanick, which work on a 24-by-7 system and even before opening their doors are already creating an unease with the neighborhood.

“Although you have to remember that this being against anything new is also a cultural profile that is a little bit Portuguese,” he points out.

Now’s ghost kitchen, in Picoas: it operates in a similar way to the other dark kitchens, with a delivery and takeway system. Photo: Rita Ansone

In Picoas, the dark kitchen Now has also found a neighborhood prone to few problems. Flanked by two properties with closed doors belonging to the City Hall, Now is a neighbor to a language school, sewing school, and small businesses that cohabit in peace with the enterprise and still guarantee a local clientele. “Fortunately, we have reduced the risks of impact,” says one of the partners, Elisa Veiga.

The residential building above the five kitchens that fill the ground floor has not given any problems. There has been only one complaint, from the second floor neighbor, which was resolved by changing the models of the air exhaust unit.

Now is an original ghost kitchen, with no place to receive customers, dedicated to delivery, and it is also possible to deliver to customers in the takeaway model. At the entrance, there is a small area reserved for deliveries, with water to recharge the deliverers’ batteries and USB ports for cell phones.

Now’s kitchens, in Picoas, among empty buildings and other commercial buildings, without conflicts with the neighbors. Photo: Rita Ansone

In operation since March 15, Now has 25 restaurants occupying the space’s five kitchens, most of them “virtual”. Even so, the number of deliveries is not as ostentatious, with about a hundred a day.

Like Weat’s competitor, Elisa guarantees that the arrival of a giant player owned by the former CEO of Uber Eats will not interfere with her business. “There is still room to expand this branch in Lisbon,” she evaluates. Now itself dreams big, of opening a hundred kitchens in Portugal and Spain.

About the fact that the new venture lands with an international bad name in its luggage and already creates friction with the neighborhood even before it opens, Elisa doesn’t have any fears that ghost kitchens will be seen as a “problem” for the city.

“On the contrary, if we work properly and others eventually don’t, it ends up being a positive advertisement for us,” she argues.

Dematerialized kitchens, ghosts that are here to stay

Dark kitchens are one more element in the chain of dematerialization of the restaurant culture – which until recently was structured in someone going to a space with a list of dishes on a menu – to be prepared in a kitchen installed in the same building and delivered to the customer by a waiter.

Uber Eats delivery man with his bicycle waiting for the subway to complete the delivery. Photo: Rita Ansone

Accelerated by successive confinements in the pandemic and the cylinders of courier motorcycles, more and more the meal now travels toward the customer to be served at the table in the living room, kitchen, or office, satisfying the desire of those who believe that going to a restaurant is a “waste of time.”

With no time to waste, the billionaire who helped disintegrate the traditional cab and delivery service, now also dematerializes waiters, maîtres, kitchens, entire restaurants, and an entire already secular culture.

Bernardo Rodrigues from Weat tells one of his ghost kitchens is used by a “meat and bone” restaurant, with three physical units in Lisbon. The logic is to free up the kitchen area in spaces where square meters are valuable, to enlarge the hall to receive a larger number of tables.

“This is a trend in almost all the European capitals. In these cases, the restaurant keeps a small structure to receive the food prepared in the dark kitchens, set up and heat the dishes,” he explains. In other words: you go to a restaurant to have a dish delivered to your table by a motorcycle delivery service. Curious, to say the least.

Foto: Rita Ansone

Just as the Lisbon City Council does not control the dark kitchens, the ghost kitchens “wash their hands” of controlling the customers operating on the plates and ovens. Each restaurant is responsible for the official paperwork, such as labor contracts with employees and food safety certification.

The responsibility also lies with the Darks’ customers regarding the deliverers that line the establishments’ doors, which is already one of the worst nightmares of Alvalade’s residents.

“You see the dozens of motorcycles and bicycles in front of the MacDonald’s in Saldanha?” João Appleton asks. “Here it will be ten times worse,” he believes.

Aside from the interview with the residents’ spokesperson, the Alvalade petition signers wanted to say only what was strictly necessary, fearing that they could make difficulties in the negotiations with the City Council. 

Perhaps without realizing that on the other side of the table is an opponent who specializes in moving through the shadows.

You can read this article in Portuguese.

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