The food delivery market doubled in size during the COVID pandemic calling some industry experts to question whether the days of sitting in restaurants are numbered!
We’re all adults here so I’ll just dive right in with the (PG) rated introduction; It has often been said that the oldest profession in the world is that of “ladies of the night selling their favours to lonely men” and there may well be some truth in it. But you know what else is definitely one of the oldest professions and business models in the world? Cooking and serving food for others.
Granted. The modern concept of the restaurant as we now know it traces its origins only as far as 19th century France (in case it escaped you, restaurant is itself a Franco-originated word deriving from “to revive” or “to restore”) but the concept really does date all the way to back to the very founding of civilisation as we know it.
Ancient Egyptian records from 512BC mention an establishment that we would now call a diner serving patrons with “a plate of cereal, wild fowl, and onions” (yum). In the ruined Roman city of Pompei, there were 158 ‘Thermopolia’ (food service counters) some of which remain semi-preserved beneath the ash. In my home country of the UK some of the oldest surviving buildings on the whole Island are present day pubs which were originally “taverns’ ‘ selling shelter, ale and warm food to weary travellers Indeed, even many of the ancient christian monasteries had service kitchens which served food to pilgrims in exchange for donations.
Restaurants, cafes and diners (both the concept and some actual, physical restaurants) have survived the rise and fall of empires and the overthrowing of prevailing cultures. Taverns kept on feeding the hungry during both the Black Death and, the pubs stayed open even during the World Wars. I could go on but you get the idea right?
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The Evolution of Dining
The reason for the survival of the humble restaurant is its adaptability (along with humanity’s insatiable desire for food of course) so it is no surprise to witness the concept evolving again for our troubled times. According to (SOURCE), in 2020 and 2021, food delivery actually overtook sit-out (or sit-in if you’re in the UK) dining experiences for the first time on record!
The reasons are pretty obvious. The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing global lockdowns forced the closure of restaurants and bars all the way from Toronto to Tasmania throwing the sector into unprecedented (and I do not use the word lightly) turmoil. As I said, whilst medieval taverns had even stayed open during the Black Death which killed an estimated 50% of Europe’s population, the international decision was taken in 2020 to turn off the grill for the first time since 512 BC!
By April 2020 it became apparent that COVID was here to stay and that various societal shutdowns would become commonplace. As such, the restaurant sector quickly began re-envisioning itself and even the most fancy eateries were soon operating as meal delivery take outs and boom, home delivery doubled in a matter of months.
At the close of 2019, if you wanted a take out or food delivery in my home town the options were Pizza, Burger, Indian or Chinese. If you woke up at 10am craving a brunch Shakshuka, then you had to go out and get it cos nobody was gonna deliver that to you! And if one evening you fancied a fancy French State Tartare brought to your door so you could eat it in your boxers, then that was just not going to happen.
Fast forward to Autumn 2021 though, and the options for home food delivery are endless. Researching this I had a flick through Uber Eats and Just Eat and was blown away by the options – breakfast Granola, boxes of pasta and even grilled sea bass were all available at the touch of a button and would be on my door within the hour.
Even though restaurants have now opened their doors again in most parts of the world (sorry Melbourne not you), a lot of customers are still reluctant about dining in crowded spaces – Deliveroo for example grew by 59% post re-opening. Others are simply unhappy to frequent an establishment with vaccine/covid status pass requirements and so are continuing to prefer home deliveries.
The restaurants themselves have also identified a potential cost saving benefit as they don’t need to employ as many waiting staff, and don’t need to clean down tables as often. The costs of meal delivery are often simply cheaper than the cost of serving people face to face. Indeed, many of Ottawa’s meal delivery services are now dominated by establishments that would not have even considered joining the service a year ago.
The Future Of Dining Out
It seems like something of a win/win for both chef and diner alike. Therefore the question is not so much ‘what will the future hold for the restaurant?’ but rather “will there even be a future for the restaurant?!
It isn’t just cooked food that has been affected. Fresh food delivery whether from a supermarket or in the form of meal kit providers have also seen a pandemic bonanza.
But let’s remember one very important thing. Restaurants, cafes and diners have never just been about the food. Whilst the food is central, it is the whole restaurant experience which humans revere and love. Going out to eat gives us a chance to meet up with friends, to watch people go by, to interact with the pretty waiter and to simply eat in a different ambience than that of our own dining table. And that experience is one that people will still be willing to pay for.
Some restaurants may well for-go seating areas and switch to a purely online or take away model. It may be that only more high end and “special” restaurants decide to stick with the tried and tested come and dine business model. For example, some food does need to be eaten straight from the kitchen in order to be fully appreciated. Tapas for example, is also a classic example of a cuisine that is about the experience, the sharing with friends, and the wine, as it is about the food.
So don’t worry, I can guarantee that in 10 or 100 years from now, if you feel the need to get dressed, get off the sofa and go out for dinner, then somebody, somewhere will be serving it. And it will still be delicious.