Delicious, personalized, chef-created meals in the comfort of your own home: That’s always been the driving factor behind American demand for to-go restaurant food. Convenient apps have led to a huge rise in consumer demand for delivered restaurant meals: According to a September Forbes article, “In 2018, Frost & Sullivan estimated the industry at $82 billion in terms of gross revenue bookings and is set to more than double by 2025, backed by a cumulative growth rate of 14%.” And the passion for delivered meals now crosses the globe, with Chinese consumers accounting for more than half of global deliveries, according to Forbes.
After convenience, another upside of delivered meals may be a reduction in food waste. A U.S. household of three people wastes on average over 1,000 pounds of food a year, according to a 2018 study using USDA data. And the rate of food waste is higher among consumers trying to eat more healthfully: Fresh fruits and vegetables account for nearly 40 percent of food waste. That hopeful consumer buying arugula, fennel, and parmesan after work on Tuesday may be too tired to make the salad that night and then may toss the produce a few days later. A restaurant, on the other hand, might use those greens to create salads for several people, and ordering your salad on the way home from work to time delivery with dinner might mean you enjoy a lovely meal without the guilt of spoiled produce and wasted money.
Dine-in restaurants also see a lot of food waste—about half a pound per person, often from food left on the plate—and it will be interesting to see if companies specializing in direct-to-delivery meals can reduce portion size from their restaurant counterparts: Perhaps consumers will accept smaller portions in return for lower price and calorie cost.
Other pluses: Healthful meals are becoming more widely available via delivery, and meal variety can please multiple eaters in a household.
There are downsides to food delivery, including cost. You are paying someone else to make your meals and deliver them to your door; can’t get away from that. Commercial kitchens dedicated to cooking food for takeout and/or delivery have lower overhead than traditional restaurants, however, so some cost savings should appear in the system as more of these businesses open across the country.
The other downside to delivery is waste—perhaps not food waste but packaging waste. A meal delivered from a local restaurant comes in non-returnable containers. Sometimes these are plastic, which is recycled with difficulty. In areas with municipal composting programs, restaurants may use compostable paper and plastic containers. Still, every individual meal is housed in a single-use container, which is nice for no dishes to wash (I just confessed that I don’t plate my to-go food, busted) but a definite concern as we try to reduce our waste footprint. And a delivery of several days’ worth of meals is often packed with landfill-bound insulating material and plastic-wrapped ice.
Many commercial kitchens already house multiple companies that produce meals specifically for the takeout and/or delivery market—such kitchens are a hot trend in commercial real estate development. In the future, delivery services may partner with kitchens and offer better pricing to regular users. Regular users would plan several meals or days ahead, allowing providers to optimize regional deliveries. A certain volume of use may also make feasible the consumers’ return of nondisposable containers for wash and reuse. Or consumers may choose to pick up prepared meals at the kitchen to eliminate the need for shipping materials.
All in all, the sharp rise in demand for delivered, freshly prepared meals points to a change ahead for the processed food industry. If ordering a bowl of chili via your favorite app feels easier than going to the grocery store and buying a can of chili, then processed food manufacturers may seek opportunities partnering with or operating prep kitchens to deliver fresher versions of what consumers have been buying canned or frozen for years.
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