How the way we buy food has changed
Britain used to be known as a nation of shopkeepers. A more accurate description may now be a nation of delivery hubs.
We take it for granted now that just about anything we need for our daily lives can arrive by van, within a day or two at most of us ordering it. Food is perhaps the best organised product of all; order a pizza to be delivered to your home and if it isn't there within 20 minutes something has gone wrong!
Food is now being delivered in many ways, from arriving as raw vegetables and cuts of raw meat, through ready-to-cook recipe packs, to a full freshly cooked banquet.
Back in the 1950s we would still go to a grocery store or a greengrocers, queue up behind the counter then have a shop assistant collect all the goods we wanted from the shelves behind and help us fill our carrier bags with them. The coming of self-service stores transformed shopping; we all got used to selecting what we wanted ourselves and taking it to a cash desk. It was fast, more efficient, and greatly reduce the annoying queueing that we had suffered before.
Now we have taken convenience even further. Partly because of the Covid epidemic millions of UK families have got used to picking up the telephone or going online, then waiting for a knock on the door by the delivery driver. It saves us the hassle of driving to the supermarket, finding somewhere to park, picking our food, queueing at the checkout, then driving back home again. It is more ecologically sensible as well; one van delivering to dozens of people produces less pollution than dozens of people picking up their own groceries. It is a win – win situation.
Uncooked menu deliveries
There are always entrepreneurs coming up with bright new ideas. Cookery programmes on the television and websites containing lots of recipes have become very popular. However anyone tempted to cook a new, delicious sounding meal for the family almost invariably finds that there are several ingredients missing from the pantry! This is made worse by the fact that many herbs and spices are not only difficult to get hold of but expensive, too, particularly if a meal needs only a very small quantity. The problem is that skipping that small quantity can make all the difference between a superb tasty meal and a non-descript one.
The answer? A ready to cook meal in a box, with a menu and all the essential ingredients, including small sachets of herbs, spices or condiments, all measured out to provide the exact quantity necessary. No searching the supermarket for items you may not even have heard of beforehand, minimal preparation, and no waste. Another win – win.
Hot food deliveries
Over the years we have all got used to the idea of ringing up our local pizza shop or Chinese chippy and having fast food delivered by one of the shop employees. it was convenient to stay in front of the TV and wait for our king prawn with tomatoes, chicken vindaloo, or pizza with extra olives and mushrooms. Yes of course it would have been very nice to go to the restaurant and sit down to be served but if we wanted wine or beer with the meal we would have to pay through the nose for it, and why bother when Tesco is practically giving away cans of lager, and they have a special promotion on Australian wines?
Eating out at a restaurant, once the highlight of the week for many families, was beginning to look like an unnecessary expence, particularly since there was always one person who would have to do without the vino in order to drive. Restaurant chains which had been growing rapidly started to see their balance sheets shifting towards negative figures.
The rise of Deliveroo
Back in 2013 two gentlemen in London Called Greg Orlowski and Will Shu realised that the fast food delivery system was inefficient. Rhe average small takeaway could not afford to employ a full-time delivery driver because there just wasn't enough demand. However, what if there was a fleet of delivery drivers in every major town, picking up food from these takeaways and delivering it to the hungry customers? There would be the economies of scale, and if the whole system was properly computerised it could be made far more efficient than every food outlet using their own staff, particularly at busy times when all hands had to be at work serving customers who were picking the food up themselves.
This way they could receive an order for a meal; whilst the delivery driver was on the way it could be cooked and ready for collection; then that, as far as the takeaway was concerned, was the end of it. yet again: a win – win.
Restaurants higher up the price bracket took a little more convincing that home deliveries were good business for them. Yes they would probably sell more food but that was not what they made most of their profits on; they could make far more on the huge markups that they had on drinks, and when the customer had had a glass or two of overpriced wine there was more likelihood of deserts and coffees to follow. Naturally after such an expensive meal a large tip was a reasonable expectation! Home deliveries were the exception, rather than the rule.
The Covid epidemic
Covid changed all that.
By the time the epidemic broke out Deliveroo was facing severe competition from Just Eat, an American company with huge financial resources. Their profits plunged at first and then disappeared completely, and then the unexpected happened: the Covid epidemic meant that they had to close up shop and let their staff out on furlough. Bankruptcy threatened and they were only saved by two things; investment from Amazon, and the government encouraging home deliveries.
Home deliveries transformed the plans of many a restaurant owner. Faced with a choice of either shutting down completely – an absolute financial disaster for many, particularly those with high rent premises to pay for – and selling meals for delivery straight to the customer, there was really no choice at all. Setting up a delivery system of their own at zero notice was not really an option for the vast majority and so offers from companies such as Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats to promote their meals online and deliver them to the clients seemed like a lifeline.
Unfortunately, when many of them were charged as much as 40% of the cost of a meal, as well as a substantial signup fee, it was a very expensive one. And the big question was; once the clients had got used to eating restaurant quality food at home, would they return to the restaurant themselves after the pandemic was over?
The rise of the dark kitchen
Once Covid was on the way out many people expected the public to rush back to their favourite pubs, restaurants and takeaways and forget about food delivery services. In actual fact so many of us had got used to the convenience of having different types of meals brought to us within a very short time of ordering them that demand for home deliveries actually increased! To make life harder for established eateries more and more of the food was not produced in a restaurant or local takeaway at all; it was produced in what is called a dark kitchen.
A dark kitchen is an establishment which is designed solely for producing food which will be delivered to the customer. They have no expensive premises, no imposing frontages, no tables, chairs, deep carpets or serving staff. Instead all they do is cook food to order, and hand it to delivery drivers. Best of all they can operate from cheap warehouse premises, rather than expensive sites on the high street.
This gives them incredible flexibility. Changing a full menu can be done on the fly; and multiple brands can operate under the same roof. A conventional restaurant is expected to have a particular speciality, such as providing vegetarian food, fine dining, Chinese Indian or Thai meals. A dark kitchen however can create all of these and more under the same roof, and have a different brand name for each. Advertising over the Internet, or getting their business via the portals of companies such as Just Eat, they can slash their overheads to the bone, allowing them to undercut traditional restaurants.
What will happen in the future?
Home deliveries of food is expected to continue to rise in volume. Other companies are waiting in the wings to challenge the dominance of the big three delivery companies, and without a crystal ball no one can predict what will happen to UK eating habits in the future.
The only thing that we can guarantee is that there will be changes. Whether or not there will still be large numbers of people dressing up to go out to dinner at a top restaurant, rather than ordering it online then sitting at home and eating virtually the same food at a fraction of the price, remains to be seen; but then the Internet has already disrupted our lives and habits in so many ways!