The Food Revolution: Have restaurants had their chips?

LONG READ: With spending on takeaways and eating out booming in the UK, MT reports on the rise of the new online ordering firms and food ventures taking a bite out of the market.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 10 May 2017

We haven't always been a nation of foodies. The old British Empire may have dominated the global spice trade but by the mid-20th century, economic troubles and two bouts of wartime belt-tightening had left British cuisine with a reputation for meat and potatoes and not much else. 'What passes for cookery in England is an abomination,' to quote a character in Virginia Woolf's 1927 tome To The Lighthouse. 'It is putting cabbages in water. It is roasting meat till it is like leather. It is cutting off delicious skins of vegetables.'

But since Fanny Cradock introduced us to pizza and prawn cocktails in the 50s and 60s, the UK's relationship with food has been in the ascendant. Once pasta and garlic were exotic ingredients, now even mid-tier supermarkets are home to galangal paste, Za'atar herbs and 'Nduja, a spicy spreadable sausage from Italy. We once swapped recipes for jam tarts and plum pudding, now we're as likely to be comparing notes on the relative merits of quinoa, sorghum and spelt.

The nation's obsession with cooking has turned the once lowly job of chef into a revered profession full of celebs. Gordon Ramsay tours the world's kitchens shouting at failing restaurateurs for serving awful food. The 'naked chef' Jamie Oliver is now the second most successful author in Britain by value of books sold, at a pukka £126.4m as of 2012. The Great British Bake Off was by far the UK's most-watched TV show last year, with the final drawing an audience of 14 million.

'People are much more interested in food (than they used to be),' says Mat Sloan, director at market research consultancy Morar. 'Because of things like the craft beer movement, the better burger movement, the artisan pizza movement, it's almost woken people up to being a little more attuned to the food and where it comes from.'

Once a means of staying alive, for many food has now become a reason to. But despite the surging interest in new ingredients, recipe books and Le Creuset cookware, Britons are actually cooking fewer meals than they did in the past. In 1993 the average person spent an hour preparing their evening meal, by 2013 that was just 32 minutes, according to Kantar Worldpanel. While we all talk about counting calories and cutting out artificial ingredients, we're cooking fewer fresh vegetables and eating tonnes of pre-packed sandwiches and microwaveable food instead. Britain spent £1.4bn on ready meals in 2014.

While home cooking is on the decline, eating out is booming. The restaurant industry has come a long way from the 50s, when Berni Inn's steak garni and Black Forest gateau washed down with a bottle of Blue Nun was the height of culinary excitement for most ordinary people. Within a minute's walk of where I'm writing this I can tuck into South Korean bibimbap, Oaxacan chorizo tortillas, Lebanese mezze, Filipino bangus, Danish smorrebrod, Thai Songkhla beef curry, Vietnamese banh mi, Hawaiian poke or, if I want to be boring, a cheese and pickle sandwich from Pret.

Of course, it helps that MT's office is in London's West End. But the food in towns and cities up and down the country is increasingly varied and high in quality, and consumers are willing to pay for it. Even during the economic downturn spending on eating out soared - between 2010 and 2014 it was up by 39% to £21.6bn, according to analysis of Companies House records by finance provider LDF. The most recent ONS stats show households now spend an average of around of £22 on restaurant, cafe and takeaway meals each week. The boom has been accompanied by a slump in the amount spent on alcohol and tobacco as people are increasingly swapping 10 pints of lager and a packet of Rothmans for a burger or a cheeky Nando's. Once a treat for a special occasion, eating out has become run of the mill.

Even on those nights when we're not eating out, we now want something more interesting than a ready meal or whatever we can rustle up with our increasingly neglected cooking skills. Hence the rapid growth of the takeaway food market, which has soared in value by 50% since 2008 and grew 6% last year to £3.6bn according to figures from market research firm NPD Group.'I think it's something that's increasingly becoming a habit for people,' says Sloan.

There's nothing new about takeaways, of course, but the rise of online ordering has helped drive this rapid growth. Some takeaways operate their own web-based system - most notably Domino's Pizza Group, the UK master franchise of the American brand, which sold a gut-busting £940m worth of food in its home market last year. But most small operations outsource their online marketing and payment processing to an online aggregator.

The real pioneer of that business model was Just Eat. Founded in Denmark in 2001, it later relocated to the UK, where it floated in 2014 with a £1.5bn valuation. It effectively operates as a software provider, mainly to traditional takeaways - the kebab shops and curry houses that line your high street.

Consumers log on to its website or app, choose from a list of takeaways and place their order. Just Eat takes the payment and then the takeaway cooks the food and is responsible for delivery. The takeaways pay a sign-up fee of £699 and then Just Eat takes 12% of each order.

It's a very simple model, but also a very lucrative one - it reported a 40% jump in UK net revenues to £237.1m in its latest results on the back of more than 88 million orders in 2016. It now has operations in 13 countries on three continents and recently agreed a £200m deal to acquire its main UK rival HungryHouse (though this remains subject to approval by the competition authorities).

Just Eat has massively improved the experience of ordering a takeaway. But another London-based start-up has the potential to change the way we eat much more dramatically. Just four years after launching, Deliveroo is now available in 100 towns and cities and is partnered with 8,000 restaurants (and that's just in the UK - it also has operations in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Australia, Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong). It's clearly whetted investor appetites, having raised almost half a billion US dollars' worth of funding from the likes of Bridgepoint and Index Ventures.

From a customer's perspective, Deliveroo might seem very similar to Just Eat - you log on, place an order and food arrives at your door. But the young gun's business model is a lot more complicated. As well as dealing with orders and payments, it takes responsibility for delivery, sending its army of shiny turquoise and black-suited couriers to pick up and drop off the food. Having its own fleet of drivers and cyclists allows customers to see exactly where their food is by tracking the courier on a map (pictured). That might seem trivial but if you're starving after a long day at work, it can be reassuring to see your burger and chips are just down the road.

That's a much more capital intensive model than Just Eat's. But it has allowed Deliveroo to partner with restaurants that in the past wouldn't have entertained the idea of offering delivery. This includes high-street chains like Wagamama and Byron, and even the Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Trishna. So while it costs more to run than Just Eat, Deliveroo can get in on the hefty margins levied on restaurant food that is more expensive than a chicken chow mein or a kebab. As well as hitting customers with a £2.50 'Roo Charge', the company takes a percentage of the order value.

Deliveroo's growth has been useful for many restaurateurs, who now have access to an extra revenue stream from customers who they don't have to wait on or provide table space for. But not all of them have had a positive experience. Andre Blais founded Bodean's way back in 2002 - before most of us had ever heard of pulled pork or beef brisket - and has since ridden the wave of interest in American BBQ food to open eight locations across London. Like many chains of its size, Bodean's signed up to Deliveroo, but Blais feels doing so damaged the ambience of his restaurants.

'I got into the business to offer people the full experience ... the entertainment, the atmosphere, the TV, the music, and the legendary service we try to offer from waiters and waitresses,' he says. '(But) if people are ordering more frequently at home then we have less people coming into our restaurants and more 'spacesuits' from Deliveroo waiting at the pass for food - people were wondering who all these people were walking through our restaurant.' The restaurants struggled with the volume of orders they received too.

So in March, he decided to call it quits. 'With 25% of the gross sales, which is their cut, we didn't think that was beneficial to us. Once we crunched the numbers, we definitely discovered we weren't gaining any new trade by having this quick home delivery service - it was just diverting people.' Blais isn't the only person to have spotted this problem, but some see it as an opportunity rather than a threat.

Along a nondescript alleyway in the City of London, down a flight of stairs, you'll find a restaurant kitchen. It's little different to the thousands of others across the capital. Except that it doesn't have a dining room - or even a counter for serving customers. Like the 'dark stores' built by supermarkets to focus solely on online shopping, Clockjack is one of the first 'dark kitchens' set up to deal exclusively with orders from takeaway aggregators.

Photography by Julian Dodd 

At one end of the kitchen, rotisserie chickens (Clockjack's speciality) slowly roast on a spit. At the other, a bank of eight tablet computers keeps the staff informed of what they need to do. Each tablet is linked with a different aggregator - including Deliveroo, UberEats (a competitor set up by the fast-growing taxi app Uber), Jinn and the contract catering platforms CityPantry and Seamless. In the morning and mid-afternoon, five staff prep ingredients and cold dishes ready for when it gets busy. At lunch and dinner time the same chefs will heat up and pack the final dishes, ready to be collected by whichever brand of couriers turn up to collect it.

Clockjack began its life as a conventional restaurant in Soho. But as founders Jerry Goldberg and Fraser Duncan found out, the property prices in such a prime spot can make it tricky to turn a profit. They were already making some money from deliveries, and in October 2015 they began to wonder whether it might make more sense to find somewhere cheaper and more secluded and ditch their front of house altogether.

'This place is comparable in size to our whole restaurant in Soho, front and back, and the rent is a quarter what it was,' says Goldberg. It was also a lot cheaper to set up and you don't have to fork out for wait staff either. Plus by focusing on delivery, their potential market is much larger - Goldberg says it has around four times the capacity of the restaurant.

Aside from the financial benefits, the dark kitchen is better able to cope with the operational problems Blais had with Deliveroo at Bodean's. 'Restaurants are not designed to satisfy the delivery market,' says Goldberg. With no impatient clientele looking over their shoulder, Clockjack's staff can focus on cooking their delivery orders as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It's easy to see how Clockjack could work in the Square Mile. A large proportion of its customers are corporate - whether catering for meetings and events or employees eating at their desks - and the City is pretty unusual in its dense concentration of busy, well-paid workers. But would it make sense in other parts of the country?

'It's not like opening a new restaurant where you've got to spend £500,000 and pay £100,000 in rent,' says Goldberg. 'It would be a lot cheaper to do it - it's not a stretch to go to Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh ...' They've also considered other big cities around the world, but have no immediate plans to expand just yet.

The logic behind Clockjack is hard to argue with - and Deliveroo itself seems to agree. It's opening its own estate of dark kitchens, where chefs from its existing restaurant partners will come to work. It plans to open 30 such locations by the end of this year. It's even been suggested that the company might start hiring its own chefs, cutting out the need to share precious margin with restaurants. Asked about the possibility of such a move at an event in London in March, the company's FD Philip Green (not that Philip Green) didn't rule it out.

The food delivery market is in rude health but there are a couple of challenges which could knock it off course. Deliveroo has been at the centre of a row over worker pay and conditions. Like Uber, it controversially treats its fleet as self-employed contractors, rather than employees. Such practices are in the spotlight now and some fear a government crackdown, which could drive up costs substantially - as could a reduction in the size of the unskilled workforce post-Brexit.

'I think if the costs of delivery go up it's going to create some cracks,' says Goldberg. 'Will the customers pay more for it, will the suppliers accept lower margins, would the delivery companies accept lower commission? I don't get the feeling there's a long way to go in terms of pushing the prices up.'

Even if prices do creep up, it seems Britain's appetite for delivery is here to stay. Nowadays one could easily eat a different cuisine every night of the week without ever having to leave your own sofa. You could be forgiven for wondering if this might kill off restaurants, but that would be to ignore the social side of eating out. Then again, restaurateurs have fresh competition on that front too.

Last Sunday a stranger cooked me brunch. That's not unusual, you might think, but it wasn't a professional chef in a restaurant. It was Camille, a French contract catering manager who made scrambled eggs, maple-glazed bacon, smashed avocado and gorgeous pillowy pancakes for me and my girlfriend in her own kitchen in west London. We arranged the rendezvous via VizEat, a new app billed as 'Airbnb but for food'. It was crowned by Apple as one of the top three apps in France, Italy and Spain last year. Now it's planning to expand its presence in the UK.

'Facebook and Twitter are not the original social networks - the original social network is the table,' its founder Jean-Michel Petit says. 'It's where people have always met and made friendships, and that's what we're trying to do.' He started the business after a trip to Peru with his son, where they were welcomed into the home of an indigenous family on the shore of Lake Titicaca. He launched it in 2014 and after raising more than $5.5m in funding, it now has 22,000 hosts in 100 countries. Only around 50 of those are in the UK, but he expects that to be in the hundreds by the autumn.

'There has been a societal shift,' he says. 'My parents loved Club Med because at that time whether you were going to Acapulco or Marrakech it was pretty much the same experience. Now people want a new way of travelling - they want to be immersed in local culture. Not any kind of immersion of course - they don't want to go to the tough neighbourhoods. They want to meet nice people who speak English that are going to give them nice food in comfortable apartments.'

VizEat was originally about tourists having the chance to experience the lives of people in foreign cities, but Petit says lots of people use it in their hometown too. 'If you are Parisian you're not interested to have French food but if two streets away from you there is a Moroccan family or an American couple you can do what I call "travel in your own city".'

'Travelling in my own city' was awkward to say the least. The food was delicious and we got to try her dad's fantastic pineapple jam and shoot the shit about duck recipes and Brexit. But it was a bit stilted, and it wasn't a cheap experience either at £18 each. But one imagines it being a lot more enjoyable in the evening over a few glasses of wine, instead of first thing on a hungover Sunday morning.

Another profoundly sociable alternative to restaurants is street food markets, of which you'll now find at least a couple in all the nation's big cities. By many accounts the best in the genre are those belonging to London Union, the creation of nightlife entrepreneur Jonathan Downey and Leon co-founder Henry Dimbleby, whose backers include Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and the food critics Tom Parker Bowles, Giles Coren and Marina O'Loughlin.

Dinerama - a 'very humane way of socialising'. Credit: Johnny Stephens

Their four markets, mostly on previously empty brownfield sites, are a mix of independent street food traders (selling everything from Taiwanese steamed buns to Swedish-style barbecued fish) and kooky bars. The sort of place you while away a few hours 'grazing' on snacks and booze. 'People actually getting together, eating at a communal table, asking "what's that you're eating, where did you get it?", it's just such a humane way of socialising in a digital world,' says Dimbleby. 'I don't think street food is a "trend" - I think it will become something more mainstream, more exciting for everyone.

'(In the future) I think you'll see restaurants become less and less of a thing,' he adds. 'Eating out will be much more about the experience and not just about the food.' He points to the success of ventures like Bounce and Swingers, where punters combine grabbing some food with a game of ping pong or crazy golf, for example. 'I think we'll see all sorts of things people haven't even thought of yet coming on stream in the next few months and years.'

Most people love restaurants and given the industry's success over the past decade it's hard to imagine it going into reverse. But then most people love bookshops too, and look what's happened to them. It's not just competition that poses a threat. The cost of running an eatery has crept upwards thanks to the new National Living Wage and rising property prices. Food itself is getting more expensive thanks to the slump in the pound post-EU referendum and the business rates review which came into effect last month has pushed up the tax costs for many restaurant owners. In December, the accountancy firm Moore Stephens warned that thousands risk going bust as a result.

'It's unsteady out there right now,' says Blais. 'The safest bet is to ensure that smaller units are more profitable, don't expand, sit back, there's no rush, let's hopefully get over this and move forward afterwards.'

Regardless of what happens to the humble restaurant, the nation's love affair with food will continue. Whether we're eating a takeaway in our pants in front of the TV or awkward pancakes at a stranger's kitchen table, nothing will get between a Brit and a full belly.


More from the latest issue of MT: 

Inside Britain's private prisons crisis

ARM's boss on selling to Softbank and the future of UK tech 

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