In 2001 when banker Will Shu was working on Wall Street, one of the “perks” of doing a 100-hour week was the point in the evening when someone brought out the book of menus from some of New York’s nicest restaurants and ordered dinner for everyone. They would stop work, gather in a meeting room and eat and chat. When he was posted to London in 2004, he was disappointed to find British bankers didn’t do that sort of thing. Of course you could order a takeaway pizza or a bog-standard Chinese meal, but not the kind of quality cooking he was used to.
Shu finally launched Deliveroo in 2013, to link up customers with restaurants that didn’t traditionally offer takeaway food. It took a while to convince restaurants, worried they would be listed alongside greasy takeaways, to sign up but now the company, which operates in 19 cities in the UK, has more than 2,000 restaurants including Wagamama, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and its first Michelin-starred place, Trishna. In the first half of this year, daily orders grew by 500%.
The food and grocery delivery market is booming. Last year, more than $1bn in the US alone was invested in online companies promising to improve the way we eat at home. These start-ups, in the vanguard of what is being called “fast food 2.0”, could even be, if you believe some of those involved, the future of how we eat. It’s not entirely unrealistic – as populations increasingly become more urbanised, space will become ever more cramped (and expensive), with future kitchen areas barely big enough for a kettle. Longer working hours could mean less interest in cooking after a day at work.
In the US, other companies cook and deliver the food themselves, including Munchery, which operates in four cities, and Sprig, which specialises in organic meals. Earlier this year, Maple, a delivery-only restaurant (if that isn’t an oxymoron), launched in New York. Founded by the Momofuku restaurateur David Chang, it promises good food delivered within 30 minutes. Big players have also moved into food – Uber, the on-demand taxi service, now also runs UberEats, using its network to deliver food from restaurants to customers in parts of the US, Canada and Spain.
There is clearly a hunger for all of this, especially in markets used to ordering takeaways, such as the UK, US and Australia. Other parts of Europe, such as France and Italy, don’t have a strong takeaway culture, while street food is more common than home delivery in much of Asia. Lunch for thousands of office workers in Mumbai is the opposite of what takeaway means for most of us – a network of couriers known as dabbawalas collect tiffin boxes packed with home-cooked food from about 200,000 homes every day and deliver them to workers.
But the UK is a takeaway nation. One study by the market research company Mintel found 23% of adults order a takeaway once a week or more, and 33% order one at least every month. They also asked if people would pay more for a takeaway meal cooked from scratch, from good ingredients, and found 16% would (rising to 21% of high earners). JustEat, one of the giants in online takeaway ordering, recently reported that orders and pre-tax profits were up 50% in the first half of this year – and of the countries it operates in, the UK is its most lucrative market.
What is driving the growth? “I think it’s a few things,” says Helena Childe, senior food service analyst at Mintel. “You’ve got longer-term trends, such as the casualisation of dining out, whereas going out for dinner used to be more formal. Now increasingly, people are grabbing a snack on the move. So it’s partly consumer-driven. Then from an operator’s perspective, it’s about looking at ways to grow their markets.” She points to companies such as Starbucks, McDonald’s and Burger King which are all trialling delivery services as an example of how even the biggest existing companies are moving into this area.
But the booming food delivery market isn’t just for cooked meals – a number of companies are offering a delivery of ingredients and recipes for customers to assemble at home. The food and grocery sector, points out Ed Boyes, CEO of the UK arm of HelloFresh, is one huge area that has yet to be “fundamentally challenged by innovative online models”. HelloFresh sends 4m boxes each week to its subscribers in the UK, US, Australia and parts of Europe, with portioned ingredients to make between three and five meals. The people who order the boxes are diverse, from young professional couples and busy suburban families, to retired people who want to try new things. “Generally over the last few decades, people have been focused on convenience,” he says. “In that quest for convenience lots of the traditional values around food, especially cooking, have been lost and that’s where we see HelloFresh – [it] allows customers to recapture those values, knowing who your suppliers are and eating together as a family, but in a much more convenient format.”
You can question how many families can afford to eat like this – a HelloFresh box of three meals for two people won’t leave you much change from £40 – but he insists they have compared like with like (his suppliers are high quality, for instance) and that the supermarket versions are often more expensive, “and that’s not including the fact you get someone doing the planning and shopping for you. The reason we can do that is the business model is a weekly subscription service and we provide customers with only the exact quantities they need to cook with, which means there is no waste in the supply chain.” He believes, he says, “this concept has the potential to become the dominant way in which people cook and eat in the evening together.”
Inevitably there will be casualties in this fast-developing sector, especially in a country where “takeaway” still means a curry or kebab – one high profile company was Housebites, where chefs cooked and delivered their home-cooked food, but it closed in 2013.
Others are convinced they can redefine takeaways and make it work. Peter Georgiou, who like Deliveroo’s Will Shu had worked in New York and was used to being able to order a take-out from his favourite restaurants, tried to do the same in London one night. He ordered from Nobu, and organised a taxi to collect it. “It took about an hour and a half, it was a mix of cold and hot, and when it arrived, it wasn’t in the best state – obviously a cab driver isn’t a delivery person. I sat there with my friend and we thought there’s got to be a better way.”
He launched Supper in December last year which delivers from 19 restaurants, including Michelin-starred Tamarind and Benares, to homes and businesses within central London. “I think we’ve become more discerning,” says Georgiou. “You can see by the number of restaurants that are opening, the diverse range and the quality. We used to be the joke of Europe in terms of our food quality but now we stand as one of the places where people come for a gastronomic experience. We just wanted to give people that choice.”
Is it the end of eating out? “Not at all,” he says, but he points out the restaurant landscape is changing. “Some high-end restaurants are opening very small establishments. I suppose that’s due to rents and the expense of opening one these days – they might have only 20 or 30 covers. If you can’t get a table, we try to give people the ability to taste that food, and give the restaurant the ability to send that food out to anyone who wants it.”
Guardian restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin reviews high-end delivery service Supper
I’m not really sure I get Supper. The pre-publicity for this new restaurant delivery service bandied about words like “bespoke service” and “Michelin-starred food”. But here’s the thing: if I want Michelin-starred food, I’ll go to a Michelin-starred restaurant. Much of what you’re paying for at this level isn’t just what you’re putting down your neck, but service and ambience – the perfection of glittering glassware, exquisite presentation, the ministrations of the senior sommelier. I love a home delivery, but for a specific purpose – and I’m not sure about paying through the nose for something to slurp mindlessly in front of Ray Donovan.
Still, up for anything food related, I find myself in a central London flat (it’s central London only; of course it is) signing up for Supper in anticipation of some posh nosh without the need for all that tiresome restaurant-going. I start at about 7pm ; by 8.30pm I’m yelling at the screen, which is telling me, yet again, “You don’t have any orders”. “Yes I do,” I shriek at it. “I’ve placed the same order with my phone, my Mac, my husband’s PC, but the basket still says ‘empty’.”
Finally I resort to the pop-up “chat” facility for help, where a nice person called Jay makes me feel a bit less like I’ve never used the internet before. I whine that I haven’t been able to successfully place an order, let alone indicate how i’d like my steak done. But at last, dinner is on its way. I’ve missed delivery slot after delivery slot trying to get this far. My dinner is now expected at 9.15. It turns up at quarter to ten, deposited by an affable chap in a uniform.
I’ve chosen to order from a restaurant new to me, a City steakhouse called M. Despite the publicity, there are only two restaurants on Supper’s list with Michelin stars and they’re both upmarket Indians – I wanted this to be a bit of a departure from my slumping norm. Our sushi, vegetarian risotto, snacky little chicken kara-age bao, one steak, one burger (both with accompaniments) plus delivery and service, comes to £99.69. That’s without drinks (“curated wine from Berkmann wine cellars”: a short, and pedestrian selection) and M doesn’t send puddings. If Supper allowed to you order from more than one restaurant, I could have had condensed milk pancakes from Russian restaurant Mari Vanna for £8, with perhaps a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem (vintage unspecified) at £165.
I’m not going to drone on about the quality of the actual food, as every restaurant involved will be different. But I will complain bitterly about the key element: its delivery. I’m not sure this sushi would ever have been great (in fact, with its crunchy rice, indifferent fish and lack of seasoning, it isn’t) but by the time it has rolled around in its cardboard container, deconstructing wildly, it’s more abstract artwork than appetiser. The journey has caused the burger to steam into greyness, glueing itself to its soggy bun.The £32 steak appears, cowering in the corner of its container like a whipped puppy. Smoked potato mash is plopped into yet another carton – both it and a claggy risotto consisting largely of peas cause the cardboard to bulge sweatily. It’s all packed in the kind of stiff, glossy carrier bags more usually used for designer clothing; hot things (steak, burger) are tepid, cold things (sushi, coleslaw) lukewarm.
So I’m still at a loss. I still can’t figure out who this is aimed at: I’m imagining characters who think they’re in Wolf of Wall Street, with such an inflated sense of entitlement that even al desko meals need to come with Michelin tags. Or smarmy seducers wanting the fancy food as close to the bedroom as possible without the expense of a hotel.
“Today could be the day that changes everything,” says Supper’s website, not about world peace or technological breakthroughs, but the chance to prise an overpriced steak out of the corner of a damp cardboard box in the comfort of your own home. My ultimate verdict: probably the worst almost-hundred quid I’ve ever spent.