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Delivering food to you

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

"In recent years, the food delivery space has become one of the biggest and most lucrative in the tech world; in 2014, venture capitalists invested over $1 billion in the field, knowing full well that humans of whatever century will always be hungry—and will always be looking for a quick and convenient bite to eat." Time Magazine

So moving on from the Romans to the world of today - where to start because there are so many ways you can get takeaway food, and so many different options as to what to eat. I am skimming across a whole range of issues here and there are definitely many. Most of them you know about anyway, but perhaps not all. Surprisingly though there are also some good things to say - a few - there is always a bright and a dark side to everything.

Let's begin with what takeaway food is the most popular in Australia. Well according to surveys - fish and chips. Mostly I have got this information from a writer called, enigmatically, Mau at eDigital who wrote a piece called Australia's most popular takeaway food. It's dated 2021 so it's current, and I did see some of his statistics here and there, elsewhere on the net, so I suspect they are correct. Do have a quick look at it. Some of the information there is really interesting, and somewhat alarming as well. Although it's a little bit unexpected to see fish and chips as the nation's top takeaway choice, it's interesting - comfort food perhaps? - and also, of course, alarming, because this is not a healthy meal. Personally I would have thought that fish and chip shops were a dying thing, but I suppose if I think about it there are a couple of them in my home suburb of Eltham, and probably every suburb has at least one.

Next on the list, and - back in 2018 - the top choice - is this rather healthier option - a grilled chicken burrito from Guzman y Gomez in Sydney - so no good for us here in Melbourne. Generally speaking Mexican food does seem to be up in the various top ten lists that I saw. I do have to say that probably nobody could argue that this is an unhealthy option - though from an economical and environmental point of view (all that packaging) you could make it at home pretty easily. It's an assembly job rather than a cook-up isn't it?

Third - also from Sydney is something called an OG. The restaurant is called Fishbowl and this is what this is - a bowl of your chosen carbohydrates, topped with fish and various other things. Also pretty healthy. Very interesting. The other top seven (there were only seven in the list) dishes included beer battered chips, chicken schnitzels, more burritos and just chicken. Probably like the chicken and chips that I used to succumb to on my way home from work, with no husband coming home that night and two starving teenage boys to feed.

I believe these statistics, if you can call them that, may come from Deliveroo ultimately, so might not really apply to what people are really eating when it comes to takeaway. Deliveroo is one of the big three delivery services that seem to be taking over the world. The other two are Menulog and ÜberEats - as we all know.

I suspect that at first, both the restaurants and the customers thought that these services were a brilliant idea. For the customer a central point at which one could choose what to eat that night, enabling you to throw away all those little paper menus that were not necessarily up to date. All you had to do was to go online and order and your meal would arrive. For the restaurants, the delivery services handled all your orders for you, supplied you with the equipment you needed and also, of course provided the courier.

Now, of course, we know that they are EVIL. Well yes most probably. But you've got to give them marks for cleverness, ingenuity and innovation. Why are they evil? Let's start with those poor couriers - underpaid, no job security, danger on the roads, and no certainty of work anyway, which means that they can be working insanely long hours one minute and none the next. There has been lots in the news of late about it all and legislative steps are beginning to be taken. My guess is that most of the young men doing this - I'm guessing it's mostly men - I mean look at the size of this backpacks - are students or backpackers. Well were - as we all know there are many fewer of those these days. It's not a career entry job is it? It's something you do to earn money whilst you are doing something else. If you were uncaring you could say it was part of life's rich learning experience.

What about the restaurants? Well they also are finding that it is not a blessing but a major financial problem. These companies charge them anywhere from 10-35% of the cost of the meal, plus VAT in England. I'm not sure whether GST applies here in Australia. Plus fees for delivery and service. And the restaurants still have their ongoing rental, labour, and other overhead costs to consider. There are also many complaints about how the listings appear on the delivery service apps. If you are scrolling through a long list of offerings on an app, then the ones at the top of the list obviously have an advantage. How do you get to the top of the list? Nobody seemed to have an answer, but it's likely that if you are just a small local Indian restaurant you are not going to be near the top.

“Using our own technology, we can identify specific local cuisines missing in an area, identify customer demand for that missing cuisine and handpick brands that are most likely to appeal to customers in that area,” Deliveroo

And this is where those dark kitchens come in.

Apparently dark kitchens - sometimes known as cloud kitchens - have been around for a long time. They are just massive kitchens with no in-house customers, and in the past have largely been used for catering operations, which makes sense. Mostly they are converted warehouses, and similar such spaces, but Deliveroo, for example has made use of old containers, setting them up as kitchens and parking them in an unused industrial space.

I find them to be very intriguing, because there are a few good things that can be said about them, some very bad things and some that are just interesting because they are changing the world perhaps. There are small operators and big ones - most notably the delivery companies.

With the advent of the delivery companies, and the associated costs which come on top of the costs a restaurateur already has, some restaurateurs are thinking of giving up their physical presences in the high street - particularly in the time of COVID when you never know from one week to the next when you are going to be shut down.

"[The pandemic] has made them think: ''Is there an easier way than running a restaurant six days a week, working 15 hours a day?'" Dan Hancey - WA chef

"In a dine-in restaurant, people love to sit and chat after their meal. Sometimes an hour - maybe even two - passes by before you can give their seat to a new customer. In the few peak hours of the day, this can seriously limit the number of customers you can serve." Chef Collective

So it makes sense to move to one of your delivery company's dark kitchens. The kitchen is already set up, the online ordering system is in place, ditto for the delivery. All you have to do is pay rent (plus those extras of service and delivery), invent your latest dish and cook it. You can tell yourself you are being totally creative and don't have the hassle of actual customers. I guess the only problem is making sure that people know about you and will choose your food.

More threatening to those restaurateurs who have chosen this option, and also those who have kept their high street premises open, is the fact that the delivery companies themselves are moving into the preparation space as well.

“The way we think about it is simple: there are 21 meal occasions in a week – breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. Right now, less than one of those 21 transactions takes place online. We are working to change that.” Deliveroo

In some of these dark kitchens the operators just make one particular very popular dish - like those burritos. Like I said - they are an assembly job that is quickly taught.

And there is even talk about this being done by robots.

"In China – where the nexus between food delivery platforms and dark kitchens is more advanced, and the market has been sewn up by two of the country’s biggest tech giants, Alibaba and Tencent – data and automation have combined to enable the creation of specialist production sites engineered to churn out a single popular dish without any human involvement at all." Jack Shenker - The Guardian

Now is that a good thing or a bad thing? You would hope that it would mean that the final product would be cheaper and therefore more accessible to the poor. Because let's face it most takeaway that is delivered to your door is not usually a cheap option. Not that I would know but I'm guessing that a Big Mac delivered to your home costs more than if you bought it in your local McDonald's - where you can make use of their free wi-fi, restrooms and playgrounds for your kids. And surely it would also decrease the number of options as to what you eat.

I said there were some good things about dark kitchens. Well yes. It's a place to try things out. If you are a budding restaurateur you can rent a space in a dark kitchen, experiment with your food and use the provider's delivery apps and services to get your food out there. If it works then maybe eventually you will be able to open your own restaurant.

"Once you’ve set up a dark kitchen, it’s very easy to trial new brand ideas, new food concepts, new marketing and promotions.” Ioannis Pontikis - Equity Analyst

"Some of Britain’s most innovative food outlets began life as pop-up cafes or mobile trailers at festivals; for many, dark kitchens are the next step in bringing their food to a wider audience. And in the context of the pandemic, during which nearly every restaurant essentially became a dark kitchen at some point, delivery-only production sites have arguably been a lifeline." Jack Shenker - The Guardian

And there is no doubt that COVID has been an absolute bonus for these large delivery companies.

"The pandemic changed everything: overnight, access to reliable delivery infrastructure and a ready pool of delivery customers went from being a niche luxury to a vital survival mechanism" Jack Shenker - The Guardian

For customers and providers alike. The restaurants were closed, and ultimately had to either take an expensive break or pivot to home delivery of one kind or another. Even the top chefs of Australia have dived in - some of them - and some, like our local Mercers, have found it to be, not only life-saving, but also a source of fun and innovation and change.

“We really like being connected to the community at a different price point and that’s been a really amazing, rewarding thing to come out of this.” Ben Shewry (Attica)

The customers meanwhile were confined to their homes, and whilst they might have been able to visit the supermarket - or have their supermarket online shopping delivered - they could not go out to their favourite cafés and restaurants. And so they ordered in. And as a result junk food is being consumed more, even though that need not be the case. But I guess that's the thing about junk food. In times of stress we turn to chocolate, fat and sugar.

The massive increase of the junk takeaway food trend in Australia is concerning. Takeaway food delivery apps will learn specific consumer’s tastes (fat levels, salt levels, sugar levels), create a profile for each consumer and potentially market them accordingly, making junk food or highly processed foods stickier and harder to keep away. The result? increase in obesity and chronic diseases" Mau - eDigital

I'm sure this is true but there is also another group of entrepreneurial and increasingly large international companies in the food delivery game which just might make people eat healthier, and, moreover learn to cook. These are the companies that send you boxes of fresh food plus instructions as to what to do with them:

I think this part of the market - there are others too - began with dieting. Lite 'n' Easy certainly began as a weight loss thing. At least that's what their advertising concentrated on. Then there were the people who just delivered you a box of fresh fruit and vegetables and basically left you to it, and finally those who thought of providing the recipes as well as some of the extra things you might need. All very wonderful, but all very expensive. Not for the poor this one. And of course, the idea is to make money. But that's OK if it gets you to eat healthier.

So the times they are a-changing.

"The delivery world is booming in Australia. A combination of changing habits, busy lifestyles, readily available courier services and the COVID-19 pandemic has left people far more likely to order food to their house rather than make the trek down to the restaurant itself." Chef Collective

Which is bad news for your local small restaurants - mostly the ethnic ones, that have always, at least partially, relied on take-away. We need these places. They bring diversity and vibrancy to our neighbourhoods. They are relatively cheap options as places to meet with friends and family, try new foods that you don't know how to cook yourself, and just generally make the world a more interesting place. So get out there and support them - and takeaway is alright as long as you go and collect it yourself.

And I didn't even mention the awfulness of all that packaging.


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