Your Delivery Order May Be Cooked in a Parking Garage

REEF Technology may change how we think of restaurants post-Covid

A pop-up REEF kitchen.
A pop-up REEF kitchen.

Order up! One fried chicken sandwich appears on the digital screen. Batter, dunk, fry, assemble. The spicy habanero fried chicken gets gussied up with a few pickle slices and a slap of butter on a Martin’s potato roll. Paired with macaroni salad and daikon slaw. Like an orchestrated quartet, three chefs seamlessly construct David Chang’s famous Fuku Korean fried chicken sandwiches in a 200-square-foot kitchen. The sandwich is popped into a to-go box and sealed with a Fuku sticker. A delivery worker on a bike retrieves the order and speeds away toward the finish line, an apartment in breezy, tropical Miami.

There’s no brick-and-mortar Fuku in Florida, but Florida diners can still get the same Fuku menu. And it’s legit — even if this particular chicken sandwich came from a parking lot in Miami, thanks to REEF Technology. That said, it’s not all roses. When REEF rolled out Fuku in Portland, Oregon, it was paused because people were less than thrilled it debuted in the middle of Covid.

REEF is one of a handful of companies that challenges the way we think about real estate — and how we dine.

The back of a REEF kitchen with a scooter out front.
The back of a REEF kitchen with a scooter out front.

With around 5,000 parking lots and garage locations, REEF Technology has the potential for Starbucks-level density in a city like San Francisco or New York. According to the Chief Creative Officer of REEF, Alan Philips, the vision is to transform underutilized urban real estate by providing what they’re calling “essential services” like kitchen pods that can be used for cooking, distribution, and logistics: Consider, for example, the 500 of the most-delivered items on Amazon stored in a parking lot on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Using underutilized spaces like lots allows REEF to get products to consumers faster.

“This is ‘the last block’ because we are on the block,” Philips said.

REEF Technology, headquartered in Miami, is reimagining empty lot spaces. Through REEF, lots are being flipped into mobile culinary platforms through specialized wheeled kitchen pods, offering menu items that were previously only accessible to the limited radius of the restaurant that created them. REEF works with over 100 restaurants nationwide, across 20+ North American markets.

Covid-19 provides an opportunity as “an accelerator of positive change for REEF,” said Philips. Philips said that REEF is creating new jobs and hiring unemployed restaurant workers to execute the menu for their vessels. Mobile kitchens are another way for restaurateurs and chefs to make more money — and Philips said there is enough demand for both REEF and brick-and-mortar restaurants to exist.

“[REEF] has been a way to keep my name, food, brand alive,” Florida’s Michelle Bernstein said. REEF hires an enormous amount of out-of-work chefs and cooks and, she says, pays them more than fairly.

The famous chef, currently of Cafe La Trova in Miami, was hired as a consultant for REEF’s mobile kitchens to make sure more labor-intensive dishes can translate into simplified and digestible recipes for the line cooks preparing them.

“[Delivered cuisine] is a whole different science and one that deserves a lot of attention. You can’t just put a delicious meal in a box and expect people to have the same experience they have in your dining room: recipes, packaging, and cooking times all factors into perfecting the to-go meal,” Bernstein said.

She said working in a mobile kitchen isn’t much different than working in a restaurant kitchen. “When you work in a restaurant kitchen, you don’t really see the dining room unless the kitchen is open,” she said. “You might as well be in a pod. Sure, you usually have a walk-in refrigerator and a bit more room, but I have always had and loved smaller kitchens. Less space to lose food, lose employees or waste time. It’s the same, really, no matter what type of kitchen you are in: Lots of hustle and bustle.”

Bernstein is offering her Cuban and Latin American dishes from her Miami restaurants present and past as part of the expansion of REEF Technology’s parking lot kitchens as of November 2020. Diners in the Fort Lauderdale area were able to get Bernstein’s greatest hits, previously only available if you were in Miami: flan, Michy’s fried chicken, short rib rigatoni, and more. Chef Bernstein’s pop-ups with REEF, now temporarily shuttered, are slated to reopen this year.

While a growing number of restaurateurs have embraced REEF, some diners are skeptics of food that’s coming from a parking lot — like Jessica Blair from New York City.

“I want to know where my food comes from. So when I order delivery, I always look up the name of the restaurant on the third party delivery platform on Google so I can see the images and photos — in addition to the reviews — of what the actual place looks like and the health letter grade. So if that place doesn’t actually exist, what does that mean? Doesn’t the consumer have the right to know their food is made in a parking lot? During Covid-19, ordering delivery is like trying out a new restaurant in real life, so you want to know where you are ‘going.’”

She worries about hygiene and sanitary implications of cooking in a parking garage, like gasoline fumes and inviting vermin. And as a car owner herself who pays monthly for a space in New York City, she cites issues coming from those who also use the parking lot for its traditional purpose: “If I was parking my car in a garage with a kitchen and it smelled like food all the time, I may not like that either.”

Despite skepticism like Blair’s, the company is growing, with the majority of pods in surface lots. A pod can house up to six restaurants or food brands. Each vessel is approximately 250–300 square feet, roughly the size of 2 parking spaces. All of the vessels contain a fully operational kitchen that is equipped with proprietary technology specifically tailored for each restaurant concept’s needs. Approximately 2 to 4 people work in a REEF vessel per shift.

So how does it work? A brand like Fuku joins REEF. The menu is developed and run through a pilot. Once it satisfies the restaurateur, REEF can expand Fuku’s delivery radius in any given city across the nation that has a REEF parking lot. What could only be delivered in Manhattan is now delivered in Miami. For brands, this is appealing because it means they can expand to other markets with lower costs. REEF operates on a revenue share model with our partners. REEF provides all of the upfront capital to get a restaurant partner up and running on their platform and manages everything from real estate to relationships with the third-party delivery platforms. The specific details of the revenue share model may differ from partner to partner.

On the customer side, someone orders from a third-party delivery platform like Uber Eats, Postmates, or Seamless. The order is sent digitally to a terminal within REEF’s kitchen network in the given geographic area. The food is prepared and a courier from one of the third-party delivery services picks it up and delivers it.

Philips predicts the company will expand beyond parking lots. “What you’re going to see with the shift with coronavirus is people are going to start doing the same thing with commercial and residential real estate. If people aren’t using offices as much, the buildings might have to be converted to residential buildings. Zoning rules need to change so that real estate is more flexible and we’re able to continually change use and maximize value,” he said.

REEF claims that their mobile kitchens are not ghost kitchens or a food truck posted up in a parking lot, despite other publications like Eater or The New Yorker labeling them as such — and they look that way to the consumer.

Proprietary technology allows REEF’s mobile kitchens to run several different food concepts in a single vessel, compared with one concept per ghost kitchen or food truck. These vessels take up anywhere from three to five spaces in a parking lot and allow for drive-thru and pick-up access for customers.

Most ghost kitchens do not have pre-existing real estate like REEF does. This underlying asset allows for flexibility and proximity to a customer. Compared to other cloud kitchen businesses like Zuul or Kitchen United, which have to rent real estate outside of the city and then deliver from there, REEF’s kitchens are already on the block and the kitchen is mobile.

As the restaurant business is slaughtered by the novel coronavirus, Philips sees REEF neighborhood kitchens as a way to enable restaurants to maximize value and minimize cost and bring joy to customers.

“We’re doing everything we can to put out a high-quality product consistently and give people what they want and make it a meaningful experience. We call that ‘dine at home’ as opposed to ‘delivery,’” Philips said.

Philips also claims it helps both third-party-platforms and delivery couriers and drivers. “If there are 100 orders a day coming out of this one location, then you are more likely to stick around that location, just like an Uber driver at the airport, and continually get more and more orders.”

Some restaurateurs still have questions about it. Jenna Cuccia owned and operated 17 Summer Restaurant, with her brother and chef, Joseph, for the last eight years. They were even nominated for a James Beard award. They closed their restaurant in Lodi, New Jersey at the highest point in their career in 2019. While she says she would have considered bringing her menus to REEF to keep her restaurant “alive” she has some concerns as a chef.

“Is the enclosed parking garage equipped with a kitchen and proper ventilation?” she asked. “How many people are working in one ‘pod?’ Is each space a different restaurant/menu? Does the concept follow a QSR model or a fast-casual model?”

She also questions hiring practices. “I’d be more comfortable hiring the person training the kitchen staff.”

She does concede that since the restaurant industry has been one of the most affected industries due to the novel coronavirus, with 5 to 7 million people having lost their jobs and 60 percent of Covid-19 restaurant closures remaining permanent — REEF Kitchen networks might be a necessary step in order to survive.

“We have to adapt and take chances,” said Cuccia.

REEF’s Philips has a more optimistic outlook for the industry. “We hope to make a positive impact on an industry that we love. Our desire to support, not disrupt; we are hiring tons and tons of people and putting them to work.”

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