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Ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Is Betting on the Rise of ‘Ghost Kitchens’

November 8, 2019, 2:54 PM UTC

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Ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is back with a secretive startup already valued at $5 billion.

His new company, called CloudKitchens, builds commissary kitchens that restaurants can use for their delivery operations. CloudKitchens also operates its own delivery-only restaurants within those commissaries, including brands like Excuse My French Toast, Egg the F* Out, and B*tch Don’t Grill My Cheese.

Kalanick has kept CloudKitchens largely under wraps, but he’s been buying up cheap properties across the U.S, India, China, the U.K. and elsewhere. He also capitalized the company with $200 million of his own money, according to The Wall Street Journal, and added another $100 million in January. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) poured another $400 million into his venture, bringing the total to $700 million in funding. (My colleague Maria Aspan points out that the deal reportedly makes Kalanick the first Silicon Valley founder to accept an investment directly from the Saudi government since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi a year ago.)

But the question more people should ask is: What the hell is Kalanick’s goal in building CloudKitchens? And here’s where I think he’s playing some sort of 3D chess. 

Let’s look at the facts: At Uber, Kalanick oversaw the rise of Uber Eats, the company’s food delivery unit. Eats launched about six years after Uber’s inception in 2015. The service debuted in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Fast forward a few years and today, Eats boasts $1.5 billion in revenue and serves food from more than 220,000 restaurants in more than 500 cities around the globe. It’s the bright spot in Uber’s business.

Kalanick is betting that these non-traditional kitchens will revolutionize the food delivery business. There are a couple of types. “Virtual restaurants” refers to real-life restaurants that make different cuisines specifically for food delivery apps. Since 2017, Uber has helped start 4,000 virtual restaurants exclusive to its Uber Eats app. The other — the one Kalanick is focusing on — is “ghost kitchens,” a name for those that have no retail presence and serve as a meal preparation hub for delivery orders. (This feature explains it well.

I had heard a rumor about Kalanick’s end game: build up CloudKitchens and make it such a compelling business that Uber would have no choice but to buy it. And then, boom, the ousted founder would be back inside the company he started. I reached out yesterday to a source familiar with CloudKitchens to ask about the validity of this rumor. 

They told me Kalanick does want to compete with Uber — but he does not want to sell. He wants to compete with Uber and win. And that, my friends, would be checkmate. 

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Polina Marinova
Twitter: @polina_marinova


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