Posted on Wednesday, 10th February, 2021
The transformation of takeaway had two compatible forces: the willingness of venues to embrace a different way of working to shore up their survival, and the desire of housebound folk to continue enjoying meals prepared by their favourite chefs.
Without these twin forces, we would likely never have seen inventive operating models that included a mass pivot to takeaway and delivery, a rapid expansion of the meal box phenomenon and the sharing of knowledge by chefs who helped us get through lockdown with video tutorials and new skills.
Will these services persist as normality resumes? Have venues unwittingly opened lucrative new revenue streams by virtue of necessity? Will some restaurants make permanent changes to their business models? And what have we learned about consumer behaviour?
Let’s face it: nothing can match a night out at a favourite eatery surrounded by friends or family and enjoying a high-quality dish. But with that option removed, pubs, cafés and restaurants were quick to shift gears and move into takeaway and home delivered food.
And while we embraced it in droves, will demand continue to exist as physical distancing measures loosen and venues welcome diners back onto their premises?
“People will continue to order takeaway and home delivered food because it’s easy and convenient,” says Mary Kyroussis, manager at the Croydon restaurant of pizza and pasta chain Sofia in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. “If I could have my food delivered, and know it would be the same as it was in the restaurant, I’d happily stay at home on my sofa too.”
Kyroussis says her customers have been keen to return to sit-down meals at the restaurant but she has observed a change in their dining out behaviour.
“People are going out if it’s their birthday or an anniversary or a get-together but for regular meals, delivery is not stopping,” she observes.
COVID restrictions continue to have an impact on the way Kyroussis operates her restaurant, with its usual seating capacity of 450 currently reduced to just 130. However, she’s not complaining about the shift in operations.
“We have less cleaning, it’s quieter and, when we have a full restaurant, the diners all come at once and want to be served at once. But with takeaway and delivery, it’s a flat half-hour wait and people are happy with that.”
Another key to the ongoing success of delivery could be new ideas around food preparation.
Providoor, a fine food delivery service launched in 2020 by Shane Delia of Maha restaurant fame, chooses to deal in cooled, pre-prepared dishes that are designed for reheating at home.
The result is home delivered food with its integrity intact. The so-called ‘finish at home’ offer attracts a flat $16.50 delivery fee, with restaurants stumping up a 15% commission, making the service viable for diners, venues and Providoor itself.
It seems likely that our love affair with takeaway and home delivered food has only been strengthened by lockdowns and will, likely, continue to remain a potent revenue channel for hospitality businesses in the future. It may even lead to some venues permanently adapting their service model with a heavier skew on takeaway and delivery.
Meal boxes came of age just prior to the arrival of the pandemic, with the likes of mass consumer brands Hello Fresh and Marley Spoon driving incremental growth in the sector. But, unlike those established players, who work on a subscription system, restaurants jumped on board to offer ingredients and recipes for one-off meals, inspired by creations from their own menus.
One group that invested heavily in the meal box concept was Sydney-based Merivale, owner of prominent venues including Mr Wong, Felix and Totti’s. Its Merivale at Home side hustle, launched in April 2020, proved a big success, with video instructions from chefs and music playlists to set the mood.
So will dinner boxes from leading restaurants maintain their appeal once COVID passes? Merivale’s Dan Hong is one who thinks so.
“I really do think people are going to continue cooking at home,” Hong says. “It’s a totally different experience to going to a restaurant. Eating around the table, being in the kitchen; it brings the family together.”
Hong also says suburban families who find travel into the city a challenge for a night out will continue to appreciate the restaurant experience at home.
“They’ll keep going for products like Merivale at Home, so I feel like this type of service will continue.”
During lockdowns, Australians embraced dinner boxes as a way to learn new skills, spend quality time with their family, eat well and remain connected with their favourite restaurants and cafés. In doing so, people have increased their confidence in the kitchen. While we continue to spend time at home, there is no reason dinner boxes won’t thrive in the longer term.
A big unknown for hospitality venues was how fulfilling customers would find eating restaurant meals at home without the ambience of the venue itself. The data and anecdotal feedback was universally positive.
“I was pleasantly surprised by how well people in Australia adapted to the COVID situation,” says business analyst, Glenn Williams of Australian consulting firm nLIVEn.
“Human ingenuity found clever ways to cope with the situation despite the short-term isolation.”
While Williams believes dining out is now high on the priority list of the average Australian, he sees the COVID-led convention of home delivered meals continuing to play a powerful role in the months and years ahead.
“What COVID said to the world was that your most important asset is your home. It’s the place where you’re safe and secure. With that came an energy to improve it,” he says.
“Investment into homes and the home experience is a good precursor to saying ‘let’s bring more dining into our house’. You’re more invested in your space.”
And, says Williams, we made some delightful discoveries when eating high quality meals at home.
“One of the things restaurant food does is bring all these rich home-cooked aromas into your home. It’s almost like your grandmother is in your house, and that is really evocative for people.”
As for venues, Williams says now is the time to interact with customers to try and understand the ongoing viability of takeaway and home delivered food.
“Right now, I would call customers who bought a home delivered meal from my restaurant and find out if they enjoyed that experience. Has it lived on in their memory? Have the savings on babysitting, road tolls, travel time and parking increased the appeal of eating at home?”
“I would find out if it’s something those customers plan to do even when they could choose instead to dine in-venue. Would they commit to a quarterly subscription, like a wine club, where they opt in to four home delivered meals a year? Do restaurants band together and collaborate to provide variety to members of the club and share data?"
“These are ways venues can continue to leverage their investment in the home delivery and takeaway systems they’ve set up.”
People will associate their homes with feelings of safety and security for the foreseeable future. This has created an environment where there are powerful new conventions around eating at home.
For venues to best understand and leverage this change in the consumer mindset, now is the time to be talking with customers to find out how to evolve their home delivery and takeaway offer to meet the needs of diners in the post-pandemic environment.