With pubs, restaurants and cafes still closed for dine-in food and drink due to ongoing lockdown restrictions, takeaway and delivery have become our norm. It’s a means of survival for the hospitality industry and, let’s face it, welcome respite from another night of spaghetti bol for those stuck at home.
Many restaurants have gone ‘dark’, operating as kitchen-only establishments to fulfil their onslaught of orders. With no regular fixtures such as tables, chairs, servers or storefronts, the food is accessible only online or through an app.
But it’s not just existing eateries pivoting production lines. According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), a centralised online registration system used by almost 200 local authorities shows that 44% of new food businesses that have opened since the first lockdown are based at home, too, the BBC reported.
This new wave of foodie start-ups have turned their kitchens into side hustles, selling curries, pies, cakes, chocolate and more, promoting their tasty offerings via social media or neighbourhood word-of-mouth to up their orders.
Dark or ‘ghost’ restaurant kitchens and these new at-home entrepreneurs are bound by the same hygiene rules as regular eating establishments. But local authorities only check food businesses that have registered, leading to worries that some food being sold is not up to safety standards.
We’re used to checking the hygiene rating sticker at a restaurant door or whether allergens are clearly marked on a menu – and the same care and judgements should apply to food ordered online.
So, with consumers warned to check before they click, here’s what to keep in mind ahead of your next takeaway.
Do your homework
Those operating a food business have a responsibility to ensure everything they produce is prepared and cooked in clean surroundings, is safe to eat, and is exactly what it’s advertised to be.
“Anyone wishing to sell food online must register as a food business with their local authority,” Michael Jackson, head of regulatory compliance at the Food Standards Agency, tells HuffPost UK. “Where sellers do not follow the rules, they may be fined, imprisoned for up to two years, or both.”
“Our advice to people when ordering food online is to check that the business has a food hygiene rating and choose only those with a rating of three or above. This can be checked on our website or by asking the seller directly.”
‘Dark’ kitchens doing it right
There are two main types of ‘dark’ kitchens being used right now by restaurants, explains Steve Hill, operations director at Japanese ramen bar, Bone Daddies, which is running a delivery-only service, in partnership with Deliveroo.
“Deliveroo Editions is where the company provides the space and kitchen for you. You can also rent spaces from other commercial kitchen companies. We use Food Stars and Jacuna,” he says. “They take food safety and staff safety just as seriously as we would in restaurants to ensure we comply with any laws. Everything is 100% legally compliant and we’ve got all the practices in place. If anything, we’re going above and beyond.”
Bone Daddies has six restaurant branches across London, but is currently running six dark kitchens to prepare food for customers across the city.
“Staff wear masks and gloves as per the government guidelines,” he says of the set-up. “We have sanitation spaces, hand washing every 15 minutes, equipment is swapped out and cleaned every hour, reduced menu size, and floor markings. We’ve managed to keep all our staff on and train them to make sure they understand any risk assessments and non-contact food deliveries.”
Check the allergen advice
All food businesses are required to include full ingredients labelling on pre-packaged food and provide up-to-date allergen information to customers when taking an order, to avoid cross-contamination. For takeaways and deliveries, this information can be given on the phone or in writing on a website or menu.
“This applies to any business, but in order to build up a brand and trust, you should be completely transparent, you should never have anything to hide,” Steve Hill says. “I always think ratings on these apps should give you an indicator of whether a business takes things seriously or not.”
Michael Jackson from the FSA backs this up. “Food businesses must ensure they provide allergen information before the purchase of the food is completed (at the point of sale), and when the food is delivered,” he confirms.
“If a consumer has any doubts about a food seller or a food product, they should report them to the local authority. It’s a key priority for us to make sure that all those involved in online marketplace selling meet food standards.”