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.
Ojalvo and one of his three co-founders, Umut Tekin, met as undergraduates at Northwestern University, in the late nineteen-nineties. After graduation, both worked as management consultants: Tekin in technology, and Ojalvo focused on supply-chain optimization. They started their company in 2013, in Miami, under the name ParkJockey, and initially offered an app for reserving parking spaces in advance, which launched the following year in London and Chicago. The app included a back-end service for parking operators, and the company continued to build out its garage-management software. In 2018, ParkJockey raised nearly a billion dollars from SoftBank Vision Fund, and acquired the two largest parking operators in North America, Impark and Citizens Parking. In the trade publication Parking Today, publisher John Van Horn speculated about the repercussions of ParkJockey’s ascent. “I have received a number of calls from operators across the fruited plain asking about ParkJockey,” Van Horn wrote. “Who are they? What does their software do? Yikes, are we prey?” Shortly after the acquisitions, the company changed its name to Reef, to evoke a thriving ecosystem. It now manages 1.3 million parking spaces in forty-five hundred locations—city centers and residential neighborhoods, as well as airports, hospitals, stadiums, and hotels—in Canada and the United States. (Tekin left the company in 2019.)
In the past, Reef has pitched itself as anticipating a world in which autonomous cars are the norm, and fleets of self-driving ride-share vehicles make parking mostly obsolete. In such a world, parking lots would have to be repurposed. Over the past two years, though, the company’s narrative has changed somewhat: Reef’s executives now emphasize their work in “creating the next phase of a neighborhood” by forming local logistics and mobility hubs. This year, Reef launched a partnership with Bond, a logistics startup that operates “nano-warehouses”: fulfillment centers, often in vacant storefronts, that can be used for last-mile delivery. City-dwellers may someday pick up their Amazon packages and clamshell-carton dinners in a parking lot or empty retail space, like college students dipping into the campus center before retreating back to the dorms.
For now, though, Reef is focussing on food preparation as a test case—a proof of concept for other sorts of “applications” that might make sense in some later, future time. Food prep is a sensible first experiment for Reef’s modular approach to repurposing parking lots: over the past few years, delivery has been on the upswing, and delivery-only kitchens—referred to as “ghost kitchens” or “dark kitchens”—are having a moment. Reef operates kitchens across eighteen cities in the United States, in seventy-odd parking lots. In the trailer on Mission Street, meals from all six of the advertised restaurants are prepared on site—the culinary equivalent of a multicolor retractable pen. The restaurants are “internal” to Reef: designed and staffed by its employees, with menus developed by a culinary team that includes former executives from Roti Modern Mediterranean, Potbelly, and Jamba Juice. The menus lean toward comfort food, and are a little arbitrary. Wings & Things offers mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders, cronuts (“dusted with cinnamon maple sugar and served with a side of Canadian Maple dipping sauce”), Skittles, Red Bull, and two kinds of Greek-yogurt bowls.
Currently, the food offered by Reef’s internal brands comes from US Foods, a food distributor that works with colleges, hotels, and hospitals, and is a wholesale supplier for independent restaurants and diners. In San Francisco, the menu items are delivered to a central commissary in the Bayview area, and come individually wrapped; precise assembly instructions are provided to line cooks. Every night, Reef’s trailers, which are managed under a subsidiary, Vessel CA, return to the commissary, where the gray-water tanks are drained, the potable-water tanks are refilled, and the refrigerators are restocked. Reef has ambitions to offer fresher, more sophisticated fare, eventually. But, for now, customers may find themselves paying a premium for meals similar to those found at a fast-food restaurant, or in a supermarket freezer.
The ghost kitchen is an increasingly crowded space. In addition to Reef, there are Zuul and Kitchen United in the United States, Deliveroo in London and Paris, and Panda Selected in China. CloudKitchens, the new venture run by Travis Kalanick’s City Storage Systems, buys real estate, brings in kitchen facilities, and leases them to chefs and small-business owners, most of whom do not have other brick-and-mortar spaces. Ojalvo cites his own experience in the restaurant industry (as a partner, he worked on the expansion of Sushi Samba, a Peruvian, Japanese, and Brazilian fusion-restaurant chain with locations in Las Vegas and Amsterdam) to note that opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant is high-risk and expensive, whereas ghost kitchens are lower-risk, offering a more affordable way for entrepreneurs to enter the business. In most cities, opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant requires a gauntlet of permits and inspections; restaurateurs waiting on permits might find themselves paying months of rent for space they aren’t yet allowed to use. Reef’s kitchens are registered as mobile food facilities, which tend to have fewer permitting requirements. Like the trailers themselves, the business details are configurable: Reef offers flexible staffing arrangements and short-term leases.