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Opinion Are kitchen stoves going the way of the sewing machine?

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy, and scientific director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

For many of us, the kitchen has been a sacred place in our home. In fact, some call it the heart of the home. But kitchens are seemingly losing their lustre. An increasing number of condos and apartments are being sold and rented without a stove. In pricey Yorkville, one of Toronto’s most expensive districts, for a little more than $3,200 you can now rent a 600-square-foot unit that comes without a full kitchen. It’s also happening in the United States and Europe. For a growing number of households, the kitchen is more of a quasi-closet where food is stored, instead of a gathering place for family and friends.

Since the last great recession occurred a decade ago, access to home ownership has been a challenge, particularly for the younger generations. With rock-bottom interest rates, real estate prices have skyrocketed, making purchasing a home difficult for those who have just entered the work force. As such, builders are shrinking condos to keep prices at affordable levels – and the one thing that appears to be shrinking faster than ice cubes in hot soup is the kitchen. Builders know that potential buyers or renters are not going to spend much time there. Or at least, that kitchens serve a very different purpose for the younger crowd.

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Younger workers have a different sense of how real estate serves them. In many parts of the world where real estate prices have always been high, a home is a space for the in-between times; busy lifestyles cause us to spend less time at home, whether it be for work, leisure or anything else. It’s a place you visit between activities.

We are slowly moving toward an app-driven food economy. Food-delivery apps are the new norm and for some urban professionals, the need to cook barely exists. Young adults are time-starved and are three times more likely than boomers to order in. A 2018 UBS report suggests that the global online food ordering market could expand more than tenfold over the next decade or so, to US$350-billion by 2030 from US$35-billion. That number includes both food-delivery apps often used by restaurants and preprepared meal kits, another growing trend. Having food delivered will cost more, but paying a premium for convenience is much less expensive than buying a full-sized condo with a kitchen you won’t use.

The food-service industry is also adapting to this trend. The rise of dark kitchens is making the industry more app-friendly: These cramped restaurants, typically with no dining room and usually located in downtown cores, harbour cooks who prepare meals for food-delivery apps. They are not easy to find, but they are out there, in most Canadian cities. In Europe and parts of the United States, these dark kitchens even use robotics and artificial intelligence to manage orders and prepare meals, significantly reducing costs. With drones and highly sophisticated delivery options, costs will likely decrease even more, making home cooking the more expensive option, especially for people living alone.

With these technologies, ordering in is gradually becoming a more cost-effective, dietary choice. That is the one feature that can make home cooking least attractive for everyone, not just the younger generations. Why bother cooking when it means a household generates more food waste and spends more on food?

The economics of cooking are changing fast, which is why most grocers are investing in food service, whether it’s meal kits or the ready-to-eat space. Grocers are essentially accepting the fact that consumers want to spend less time in the kitchen. Cooking is being outsourced by a growing number of households. Kitchens have evolved from a location in a home where you cook, to a place where people just tweak and heat up whatever they want to eat. Others do most of the work for you.

Yes, the kitchen stove could be the next sewing machine. Years ago, most homes had a sewing machine, but clothing is cheaper today than it was 20 years ago, in constant dollars. Most of us buy clothing made by someone else. The same trend seems to be happening with food. Sewing is now considered a lost art. Will we look back on cooking the same way? Let’s hope not.

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