Our Ghost-Kitchen Future

Last fall, walking down Mission Street, in San Francisco, I noticed a new addition to an otherwise unremarkable parking lot at the base of Bernal Heights Hill: a large, white trailer, about the size of three parking spaces, plastered with a banner that read “food pick up here.” On one side was a list of restaurant brands with names and logos that seemed algorithmically generated: WokTalk, Burger Bytes, Fork and Ladle, Umami, American Eclectic Burger, Wings & Things. The trailer was hooked up to a generator, which was positioned behind two portable toilets; it occupied parking spots once reserved for Maven, an hourly-car-rental startup, funded by General Motors and marketed to gig-economy workers. (G.M. shut down Maven in April.) Through a small window cut into the side, I could see two men moving around what appeared to be a kitchen. The generator hummed; the air carried the comforting smell of fryer oil; the toilets were padlocked. One of the men came to the window and apologized: I couldn’t order food directly, he told me—I would have to order through the apps.

The trailer, along with a few others in San Francisco, is operated by Reef Technology, a startup based in Miami. According to marketing materials, Reef creates “thriving hubs for the on-demand economy” by “reimagining the common parking lot.” By bringing in utilities like electricity, gas, and water, and setting up “proprietary containers,” the company hopes to turn parking lots into reconfigurable community hubs. Lots might be “formatted” to include mobile kitchens, beer gardens, retail pop-ups, vertical farms, auto-body shops, medical services, rental stations for electric vehicles, and so on. “We have these pods, which arguably are not pretty, but they’re functional. They can support any kind of application,” Ari Ojalvo, the C.E.O. of Reef, told me. “If you want to put a grocery store in there, put a grocery store in there. Laundry, put laundry.” Ojalvo compares his company to Apple: just as the App Store allows developers to create and sell iOS-based tools and services, so Reef provides infrastructure for parking-based businesses. “Apple uses connectivity as a platform; we use proximity as a platform. We allow third-party applications to stand on this proximity platform and get closer to consumers,” he said.