Containerize Everything: Food Edition

Posted on Sat 20 April 2019 in life

Programming note

Every now and then, I am going to start condensing things that I rant about on Twitter here on my blog.

This is primarily so that I can index my thoughts in one place, but also because my blog is mine and not likely to disappear anytime soon. I'm not saying Twitter is going to disappear or anything, but I want to maintain the golden master of my words somewhere entirely under my control.

Onward!

In which The Guardian completely misses the point

Today's post starts with this tweet about Deliveroo running delivery operations out of containerized "dark kitchens" in the London Docklands:

We should probably take a moment to reflect on how modern journalism can report things while completely missing the larger trends they are symptomatic of, but it's just easier to lay out what's actually going on.

Commissaries?

Commissary kitchens are industrial kitchens for rent. You buy slices of time in them to prep food for large catering orders, the day's product for a food truck, and increasingly commonly, orders coming off storefront apps like Seamless, Grubhub and Deliveroo.

Food for food delivery is no longer lovingly crafted in restaurant kitchens. Since commissary kitchens allow for the wholesale separation of the restaurant experience from the icky, irritating business of actually preparing food, the food industry, ever on the lookout for ways to improve its razor thin margins, has been falling over itself to move delivery prep to commissary kitchens.

It's not going to happen

Anyone who has ever opened a box of wilted fries and lukewarm hamburgers from a delivery driver (i.e. everyone) is scoffing right now: there is no way delivery could replace the experience of going to eat out at a restaurant.

Please reconsider.

The aggressively mediocre dining experience at most fast casual restaurants is making the idea of not getting in the car, not tipping 20% and not sitting in mediocre decor while eating reheated TV dinners seem increasingly attractive to a consumer base whose inability to reliably cook for itself is as dependable as its palate is jaded.

Fast casual dining is an $800 billion industry, and a good chunk of that is at play in the food delivery wars. The US is not the only place this particular war is going to play out: restaurants are at risk in any market with crappy existing restaurants, excessive tipping and weak labor laws.

What do labor laws have to do with any of this?

The entire commissary shift hinges on the availability of two pools of cheap labor: one that doesn't raise questions about cooking processes, and another that cheaply whisks food away to the customers.

Silicon Valley's experience with the first generation of labor law arbitrage apps (Uber, Postmates etc) has made it dangerously competitive to the existing restaurant industry (itself no slouch in the labor abuse department) at provisioning both pools of workers. Competition between the two teams is going to lead to a race to the bottom that guarantees cut corners and questionable adherence to food safety regulations. Big Tech will win this race because it has internalized that it is easier to ask forgiveness than get permission.

I'm not going to say much else about the food safety issue, other than to link to Sarah Taber, who is the internet's go-to person for thoughts on agriculture and food safety.

She's right. Big Tech isn't going to change its ways just because it changed lanes.

Back to containers

Contrary to popular opinion, the comical mushrooming of food delivery startups isn't so much techbros trying to remove the last elements of friction in their over-privileged lives as it is Silicon Valley VCs with dollar signs in their eyes trying to parasitically muscle in on an entirely new field and replace the existing owners. The name of the game is containerization: take a business process, make it so that it doesn't matter where it's running, and then replicate the container as far and as fast as you can to drive down prices and (optionally) create shareholder value. Deliveroo couldn't have chosen a better implementation of the metaphor if it tried: I mean seriously, commissaries in containers in parking lots? Yikes.

"Docker for Food" has such a nice ring to it; I just wish it wasn't ushering in an era of VC-sponsored e-coli outbreaks.