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Deliveroo Editions: a new type of delivery in London
Ben McMahon

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How Can London Fix Its Delivery Problem?

What British takeaway can learn from American takeout

It's axiomatic that the Americans deliver food better than the British. Even the American-English word for it, "takeout," feels stronger than the weedier, slightly apologetic "takeaway." America has a strong tradition of eating out, so the standard of food available from local restaurants is higher in general, and of better value.

Starting with those delivery staples of pizza and Chinese, New York has led the way. Its population density means apartments tend to be short on preparation space. And why bother to cook when there is a perfectly good restaurant at the foot of your building? The short distances and relatively high density of restaurants are perfect for mopeds, bicycles and walking, whereas London's sprawling suburbs cause cold pizza and claggy noodles.

Still, following decades when pizza felt like the only takeaway game in town, the UK is now seeing a multi-billion pound boom in delivery businesses. Over the past year, UK demand for takeaway has grown ten times faster than for eating out. Last year it was estimated to be worth £3.6 billion, up almost 50 per cent since 2008, according to the data and information company NPD Group. Can the UK ever hope to follow America's lead in terms of quality?

Delivery is here to stay, according to Joe Grossman, founder of the small burger chain Patty & Bun. "It's becoming very much part of the eating culture, as in NYC and other cities around the world." Patty & Bun built a reputation among London's burger cognoscenti for hot, fresh, unfussy burgers doled out at high speed. Grossman says delivery now accounts for 10 per cent of sales overall, with numbers higher at their more residential sites in Hackney and Notting Hill.

"Obviously, a burger and chips are not going to be as hot delivered as if served in the restaurant," he adds. "You have to be constantly on top of the delivery systems and drivers. It can be challenging, especially at super busy times when everyone in London wants to curl up and have a burger and chips."

The new market is proving far from a safe bet. Even in America, with delivery much more culturally embedded, for every Deliveroo-style breakthrough there have been dozens of failures. Take much-lauded Maple, which folded earlier this year despite securing millions in early investment and a backing from celebrity chef David Chang. SpoonRocket, which made and delivered meals in San Francisco, folded last March. The venture capital research company CB Insights says that US prepared-meal start-ups took $1bn in investment in 2016, down from $4.1bn in 2015.

"Food delivery is a challenging sector, because for the core activity to be viable you need high delivery density," says Alastair Unwin, manager of the Neptune Global Technology fund. "But there obviously is a big opportunity there, which is why it remains attractive to so many start-ups — and investors." Food is a huge part of the economy, and the way we shop for it has not changed a great deal since the advent of online delivery. As Amazon has proved with its takeover of Whole Foods, there is still plenty of ambition for tech companies to take over our stomachs.

Rather than starting their own delivery firms, some restaurants are piggybacking on Deliveroo, the UK's biggest recent delivery success, for a lower-risk approach to high-end delivery. New concept Deliveroo Editions is working with a select group of restaurateurs on "delivery-only" sites. These do away with seating entirely to focus on preparing food to be delivered. Karam Sethi of JKS Restaurants — chef/owner of Trishna, Gymkhana and Hoppers, and backer of Bao, Lyle's and Bubbledogs — might be at the vanguard. His new concept, Motu, aims to elevate the classic takeaway curry for the Deliveroo generation.

"When it comes to Indian food, getting a curry on a Friday night is embedded in British culture; getting a Chinese is the same thing. It's a classic British pastime. The opportunity is there if you can offer something better than the usual: restaurant-quality food at home. The hardest thing is ensuring it's as good as in a restaurant, yet not being able to control how the food is when it hits the doorstep. You have to invest in great packaging, and hope the driver doesn't go off route, get lost or tilt the box. We tested a lot of containers to see how the food changes over time — our box keeps everything stable and upright."

Finding staff can be another challenge, he adds: "It's obviously a very price-sensitive model, so finding staff while keeping costs down is a key factor. Indian chefs can be quite expensive to find."

For now, the Deliveroo Editions kitchens are focusing on areas that are thought to be under-served by local restaurants: Clerkenwell, Canary Wharf and Battersea. "Delivery will never replace restaurants," says Sethi. "You can't replace the experience you get in a restaurant. But, as people are eating out more in restaurants, their palates are getting better, and they're demanding better products. When they order at home they can recognise a premium offer and pay a bit more for it."

It's an interesting vision. As diners learn what delivered Indian food can taste like, they will no longer put up with end-of-the-street korma. Maybe this is what the Americans have known all along: start-ups and restaurants are not in competition, but in cahoots. We get the takeaways we deserve.