Beer gardens and ghost kitchens: the startup that is changing the face of parking lots | Technology

A robot the size of a small cooler sits on sunny fake grass in a segment of parking lot near Brickell, Miami – the city’s financial district with shiny towers overlooking Biscayne Bay.

Nicknamed ‘Reefy’, the electrically powered autonomous delivery robot rolls smoothly past a series of food trailers designed to cook food for businesses whose names sound like they were created by an algorithm to respond to stoners (MrBeast Burger and Man vs. Fries) and another that serves as a storage unit for an online convenience store called Goodees – tagline: “Late Night Cravings Don’t Need Validation.” “

The robot is owned by Reef Technology, Miami’s first “unicorn”, a startup valued at over $ 1 billion. That’s a pretty steep price for a three-year-old company, but maybe not if it can deliver on its ambitious plans to transform the way we use the parking lots that dominate downtown real estate in cities around the world. for decades.

Reefy is one of two food delivery robots within a 3/4 mile radius of downtown Miami. Others are planned. Other deliveries are made in a more traditional way, by bicycle or car, ordered for home delivery from the smörgåsbord of apps like Uber Eats and Deliveroo. For Reef, food delivery is just the start.

Reef describes itself as “the neighborhood business”. The cash-rich startup has plenty of neighborhoods to explore. Reef now operates more than 5,000 parking spaces in 50 cities around the world, from Miami to New York via Paris and London, where the company already has 25 sites and is building a hub in Kentish Town which will house a station. electric bikes, a farm, a BP electric vehicle charging station and a kitchen for Wendy’s, the American fast food chain.

Most of his money comes from parking now, but he wants to use these sites for something much more ambitious. Autonomous vehicles, carpools, electric scooters and bicycles could one day reduce the need for parking in busy city centers. Reef sees these spaces as hubs for all kinds of local services, including healthcare (it has partnered with medical companies for Covid-19 testing) and as a depot for groceries and others. deliveries that could be left in bulk in a parking lot and then delivered locally.

Other sites will serve as “parks” with pop-up retailers, beer gardens, outdoor restaurants and other services. One day, Reef sites could also accommodate air taxis: Reef recently signed an agreement to allow Archer Aviation to launch its electric mini-helicopters from the top of its parking lots.

Reef started life in 2013 as Parkjockey, a tech company founded by entrepreneurs Ari Ojalvo, Umut Tekin and Phillippe Saint-Just that uses technology to make better use of parking lots. But the founders believed they could do more with their portfolio of giant horrors. In the United States, half of downtown real estate is used for cars – space heavily used during rush hours and often empty at other times.

Parkjockey changed its name and broadened its vision in 2018. The change has excited investors. Reef has raised more than $ 1.5 billion in funding from Japan’s SoftBank, Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala investment fund, UBS and others.

Philippe Saint-Just, co-founder of Reef. Photograph: Emilee McGovern / The Guardian

Parking is the company’s main “app” – as its executives like to call the way they use space – but “ghost kitchens” are growing rapidly as well. These are kitchens that cook specifically for delivery or pickup, a sector that has become very competitive as inventors take advantage of downtown stores and other sites that have failed, either due to the shift to online shopping or of the economic impact of Covid, to define shop for food delivery companies.

Reef has developed its own kitchen trailers that it rents out to restaurants in exchange for a share of the income, and provides and trains kitchen staff to work with these restaurateurs to cook the types of food they want. to sell. It’s a one stop shop for anyone with a food delivery idea.

“It’s very similar to what happened on the Internet. In the 90s, if you wanted a website you had to know the servers, do your own coding. Now there is a whole infrastructure for the designer economy, essentially what we do for the physical world, ”says Saint-Just.

The idea took off. Before the pandemic, Reef had 50 operational kitchens. There are now just over 300.

A Reef kitchen.
A Reef kitchen. Photograph: Emilee McGovern / The Guardian

Bill Bonhorst, founder of Man vs Fries, is one of Reef’s first stars. A former technology consultant, he has always been obsessed with French fries (“I never understood why they are just a side dish,” he says). After starting a successful taco restaurant, he saw an opportunity to operate another delivery restaurant only in one of his locations. When the Ghost Kitchens materialized, he saw a greater opportunity.

The French fries-focused menu – including items such as the “SoCal Burritto: Hella big flour tortilla, carne asada vs pollo asado, Cheetos® Flamin ‘Hot®, straight fries, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, secret sauce, side of queso “, proved to be a success. It now has 151 locations across the United States, eight in Canada, one in Dubai, and plans to open in London later this year. “It’s a little crazy,” he said. “Under the old model, that would be impossible.”

Starting a sit-down restaurant is difficult, expensive, and difficult to scale, unless you have very wealthy backers. Ghost kitchens offer a cheaper way to experiment and see what works, he says.

“Man vs Fries is like software. You build it once and then all you need are kitchens, ”Bonhorst explains.

There are plenty of very well-funded alternatives to Reef, including CloudKitchens from Uber founder Travis Kalanick, and Kitchen United and Deliveroo, backed by Alphabet in London. But Bonhorst said Reef’s commitment to quality and brand support convinced him. “Their training schedule is crazy,” he said. “They spend months training people.”

Reef also attracts big names. Wendy’s plans to open 700 ghost kitchens in the US, UK and Canada by 2025 through a partnership with Reef.

THowever, too much take out can make you sick. There are now so many food brands online, a trend spurred by people ordering more food from home during the pandemic, that Bonhorst fears many will fail. “You can order 18 different chicken wings right now,” he laughs. “I think there may be some fatigue.” In this environment, quality will be the key, he says. “If you don’t have quality, you’ll be a flash in the pan,” he says.

Saint-Just also expects a “rebalancing” as the pandemic subsides but, he says, the pandemic also highlights the need for “logistics infrastructure at the neighborhood level.” And for him, the kitchen business is only one step. “Our vision is to rethink the way buildings are used and developed in our cities. We don’t have to live with designs that were made for the way we lived 40 or 50 years ago.

Reef isn’t the first real estate / tech start-up to emerge with a big, bold and well-funded promise to redefine our cities. WeWork vowed to do the same for the sleepy office rental industry before dramatically imploding into cinematic levels of selfishness and pride.

Like WeWork, Reef is backed by Softbank, which has lost billions on the real estate company. They even share the same office space and taste in interior design – dark walls, 20 different types of coffee, a neon flamingo, heavy on plants – but there was no sign of the famous station. free beer from WeWork.

A corner of the Reef offices.
A corner of the Reef offices. Photograph: Emilee McGovern / The Guardian

Saint-Just, however, is nothing like Adam Neumann – the messianic founder of WeWork. Gentle and discreet, he likes to talk about evolution and not about revolution. “I am skeptical of revolutions. It may be my French origin. For me, everything is evolution, ”he says.

Nor is he a big fan of the “gig economy,” the use of often low-paid contractors, which has been used to power so many other “disruptive” technology platforms like Uber and Lyft. The employees at the Reef Kitchen are staff and are paid $ 20 per hour. “Our approach from the start was that it should be a business based on ownership and responsibility,” he says. “In general, I don’t believe in the fundamentals of building a business on workers in concert. You disagree with them at some point. It becomes a matter of how much money you earn versus how much they earn. “

But for all the cuteness, there’s something inherently dystopian about Reef.

As if at the right time, a worker walks past him wearing a t-shirt with “Fast Wasn’t Fast Enough” written on it. If Reef is successful, it will only accelerate the shift to a world that was forming before the pandemic and was supercharged by the coronavirus: a world divided between liveries and delivery men; a world where those who can afford it expect them to be delivered ever faster and those who cannot afford it, assuming they haven’t been replaced by robots.

The pandemic has exposed cracks in city life that have long widened – our roads are cluttered with delivery vans, the supply chain has been severed under the pressure of the pandemic. Maybe the local Reef hubs can help. But, just when we should be thinking the most about how to redefine our cities, it seems unlikely that the big projects of billionaire-backed tech companies are best suited to solve them or end the growing problem of inequality in the world. income.

“Cities have the capacity to provide something for everyone, only because, and only when, they are created by everyone,” wrote the ever-prescient Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Typically Saint-Just is less dark. “I think things will normalize. It’s not all about speed – convenience wins. What he hopes Reef can do is rethink the way we use city properties to build “better spaces, better communities”.

Bonhorst says “ghost cooking” will also become normal soon enough and add, not subtract, to a city’s dynamic. “People will always want to go out and eat. It will never die, ”he said. “But that too is here to stay.”

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