The Co-Kitchens: Cooking Up Innovation in the F&B Industry

The Co-Kitchens: Cooking Up Innovation in the F&B Industry 

The first and only incubator fully dedicated to the food industry, The Co-Kitchens is Shahzad Bhatti’s latest brainchild. He tells us more.

Why and how was The Co-Kitchens created?

I’m always looking at new ways of disrupting an industry. My team and I had launched The Co-Spaces, one of the first co-working and flexible office spaces in Dubai, back in 2014. We were then approached by Dubai SME to become a startup incubator, running several programmes including a food accelerator. At that point, we were getting a huge number of inquiries into the costs of launching a food business, so Dubai SME agreed to certify us as the first food business incubator in Dubai. We officially launched at the end of 2021, and we launched a slightly different, more tech-driven facility in London in 2023.

So, what does a food business incubator do?

Our Incubation Hub supports businesses producing, packaging, and selling food, businesses in food delivery, and Foodtech-related businesses. Early-idea-stage startups join our Retail Accelerator Programme and gain 12-month access to the professional-grade kitchens and equipment, mentorship, workshops, consulting, supplier list, network of contacts, and infrastructure they need to launch a food business. 

In addition, The Co-Kitchens Satellite Hub consists of flexible smart kitchen spaces for small to medium-sized food businesses that may already have an operation in or outside the UAE. These businesses have already validated their idea but need an actual space. We provide them with facilities to produce their food in a commercial environment and connect them with partners such as Deliveroo, Talabat, etc.

Are you considering getting involved in funding as well?

When it comes to the food industry, investors generally look for businesses planning to expand on a mass scale, whereas the businesses we attract are very early-idea stage. So, we’re not focused on [funding]. But, as we grow and our food heroes grow with us, I’m hoping we will get there. Foodtech is slightly different; it’s a lot more scalable and could attract investors and angels. We do train members on how to pitch for funding, produce pitch decks and financials, public speaking skills, etc. If they go out to find investors, they have that in their toolkit. 

What kind of people come to you? 

On one side, we have novel “foodpreneurs,” as we call them – people who may be at home with a passion for producing food and want to explore whether their idea can become a commercial business. We give them a facility and the infrastructure to produce, operate, and sell legally. 

On the other side, we have those who have a developed idea already; they may have already been operating from home, illegally for some, they have a customer base, and they’re looking to ramp up with the security of a reliable facility.

Lastly, we have international companies that have established businesses outside of the UAE, are looking to enter the UAE market, but are yet not willing to invest in a full kitchen or facility. We support them in getting licensed, and they can hire their staff and operate from our facility. They can test [their product] in the local market and decide to go on by themselves accordingly. 

What are the requirements to join The Co-Kitchens?

We want someone who has either a really great concept that is unique, which is very difficult in the F&B industry these days, or someone with experience in restaurant or hospitality, so they understand what goes into building a food business.

And I’m a firm believer that entrepreneurs need to be putting in the weight and the hard work. If you start providing everything, making it too easy, and they’re just coming with the idea, there’s no real drive. 

What trends are you observing in the F&B industry and Foodtech in particular?

Food delivery is here to stay in the UAE, but I am seeing a lot more competition and a lot more churn at the business level. Producing food is really tough.

Now, pre-packaged is exciting. In Dubai, we’ve always imported everything but today, we’re seeing simple ideas that can be produced locally, with great branding and great innovation.

We’re also seeing a lot of companies introducing hardware Foodtech. For example, in London, we have a smart kitchen that’s almost an unmanned takeaway point: customers remotely order food from our members and collect it from lockers at the front of the shop using a QR code. We’re exploring how to bring to Dubai these technologies and software that I spent most of last year building with our partners. 

As for apps, a big trend in Dubai right now focuses on food sustainability, helping the environment, reducing food wastage – food delivery apps that provide food businesses with reusable packaging, or allow food businesses to sell unused or unsold stocks for a cheaper price. 

What are the next steps for The Co-Kitchens?

We’ll be launching soon our annual Dubai Food Startup Programme, [courses] that help people understand the food industry in Dubai. We’re also opening our third location in Dubai in the next two months, and we’re looking to expand in London later this year. 

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