For 54-year-old Mamta Wadhwani, cooking was the first love that she converted into a profession by opening Green Village café on Mumbai’s Oshiwara Link Road in 2018. The restaurant provided employment to about 15 people and had a seating capacity of 42. But after COVID struck, the business was on the brink of closing and she couldn’t bear the thought of her family of chefs, waiters and support staff losing their livelihoods. A solution offered itself in the form of a cloud kitchen — by which means, Green Village Cafe was able to continue delivering to clients.

Wadhwani's entrepreneurship journey is one example of finding opportunity in adversity. The food industry has seen many technological innovations over the past few years, especially during the pandemic. The biggest among these is the boom in online food delivery, which in turn has sparked an unprecedented growth in cloud kitchens.

The number of cloud kitchens in India has shot up since the pandemic and a Redseer report estimated the size of the market would touch $3 billion by 2024, from just $400 million in 2019. “Cloud kitchens came out as the weapon with which the F&B industry set out to win the COVID-19 battle,” the report states.

So what exactly is a cloud kitchen and how is it changing the food landscape of the country? Cloud kitchens, also known as ghost (or virtual) kitchens, are essentially low-cost cooking spaces in which staff can simply prepare food and send it off for delivery. The affordability and convenience that people experience with cloud kitchen models give it an edge over traditional restaurant kitchens and hence food aggregators are aggressively investing in cloud kitchens to cash in.

The ability to save on operational costs and numerous overheads means chefs and food entrepreneurs have more resources to invest in diversifying their offerings. Take the case of Raashi Gurnani, who started Le Croissant in March 2021. Operating out of a cloud kitchen proved so beneficial for Gurnani that she set up four additional brands and is on the way to establishing three more. SLAY Coffee, with 130 outlets across India, is another brand that has made effective use of the cloud kitchen concept. So also has chef Seema Makwana, who launched her homemade fast food brand Buns & Deluchas out of a cloud kitchen in Kandivali, during 2021. Kashmiriyatt, a home kitchen run by Nimmi Raina and Shweta Raina Kaul specialising in authentic Kashmiri Pandit cuisine, similarly found recourse in the cloud kitchen concept to keep up with an organically expanding clientele in the NCR region.

Chef Vimanyu Garga started his cloud kitchen two years ago during the COVID lockdown, with a menu offering Italian, Lebanese and Chinese cuisines, among others. “When the pandemic happened, almost every business had closed down. Everyone was staying home. This was the first time many people were working from home. As the interest in food started to increase, people saw this as an opportunity for business. This also made us realise that serving from the comfort of our home was very advantageous, and hence the cloud kitchen came about,” Garga says.

As the food industry embraces cloud kitchens, affordability and good ROI is in the reach of more chefs and entrepreneurs than ever before. How the trend will play out as dining out gets back to pre-pandemic levels remains to be seen.