You can now dine à la carte anywhere

The way we think about eating and how we buy food is changing. Convenience matters more than ever, but we’re getting fussier about what we eat and many of us are starting to miss the social element of a shared meal in relaxed company.

Thanks to technology, we can now have it all ways. Apps and social platforms are helping to connect the hungry with the kitchen creative, so we can eat a greater variety of freshly prepared food, on demand, at home, in the office or in someone else’s dining room.

For the traditional eat-in restaurant, this is having a disruptive effect. It is forcing even the fanciest restaurants to add a takeaway option, fulfilled by the likes of Just Eat, Deliveroo, Jinn and now UberEATS. As well as giving solo diners more options, it’s an alternative to private catering.

Driven by competition

Deliveroo, now three years old in the UK, has been expanding aggressively. It has seen a 25 per cent month-on-month growth since inception, and now serves more than 40 UK towns and cities, according to UK managing director Dan Warne. Is he worried about UberEATS’ recent entry to the UK market? Not especially: “Competition just further drives our focus to innovate,” he says.

UberEATS launched in the UK last month, delivering food in central London

UberEATS launched in the UK last month, delivering food in central London

One of Deliveroo’s latest signings and its largest restaurant partner to date is Pizza Express. Chief executive Richard Hodgson says it is a response to changing consumer behaviour. “There’s a real sense of increased spontaneity. A delivery service removes a lot of the inconvenience associated with eating out – travel time and costs, car parking, drinking and driving.”

Apps and social platforms are helping to connect the hungry with the kitchen creative

Adding a delivery option is one way to protect revenues that might otherwise be lost. Since Simpsons, an award-winning fish and chip shop in Cheltenham, signed up with Deliveroo, this has come to represent 6 per cent of income. It extends Simpsons’ reach, to those with children in bed or who don’t drive, for example, and attracts more customers to the restaurant. “The selection available for delivery is just a sample from our menu,” co-owner Bonny Ritchie notes.

Simpsons has also had to think of new ways to keep customers interested now they have so many more options. It has renovated the restaurant to create more room and introduced gluten-free days, kids eat free on Sundays and topical offers.

On Merseyside, owner of Pinch in Liverpool Tony Burns has been watching the rise in innovative delivery options with interest. He isn’t especially worried as the main reason customers come to his establishment is to let their hair down with friends. Pinch, a bar with food, offers the Northern Spanish dining style of pinchos, which are similar to tapas, with an emphasis on the social element of dining.

“The delivery companies are filling a gap because people want restaurant-quality food at home, but the quality will never be as good as in a restaurant as most food does not travel well and you can’t recreate the social aspect of dining out at home,” he says.

The ‘experience’ economy

Mr Burns believes that as people travel abroad more, they return with new ideas about food and eating styles, something he has tried to respond to. “There is a clear trend towards more casual dining and sharing foods – ‘little bits of deliciousness’ rather than a full-on meal with three courses,” he says. “A lot of our customers will spend a whole evening here, ordering small dishes of food over a long period of time. It’s a more Continental way of eating.”

Thaikhun offers a Thai street-dining experience across eight restaurants up and down the country. Customers enjoy fragrant dishes in an evocative setting decorated with trinkets from Thai street markets.

Deliveroo offers food delivery to homes and offices from local restaurants

Deliveroo offers food delivery to homes and offices from local restaurants

“We no longer see dining out reserved for special occasions,” says Ian Leigh, managing director of Thai Leisure Group, which owns the restaurants. “Eating out has become part of our psyche as a nation of food lovers and the focus has shifted to the experience.”

Anthony Tattum, managing director of communications agency Big Cat has provided marketing services to restaurants for more than 16 years, witnessing the evolution. “The best restaurants know it is not just about great food,” he says. “Consumers want authenticity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean perfect. Some of the best restaurants are independent and distinctly DIY in design, built from the bottom up by friends and family. This gives them a loved and loveable air. No one wants surly waiters who are too cool too give a damn whether your lobster is chewy.”

But sometimes there just isn’t time to sit down in a restaurant, particularly during the working day. This has given rise to a host of innovative options besides sandwiches and wraps., a chain of 22 super-healthy restaurants targeting the healthy, busy London millennial, has added a Deliveroo option to seven of its sites to take freshly prepared lunches to customers’ desks.

Options, options, and more options…

Online-only restaurant EatFirst has a team of chefs who make fresh meals each morning from a central kitchen in East London, for delivery to areas in London travel zones 1 to 3, with a minimum order value of £12.50. Customers order via web or app, choosing from a list of 30-minute delivery slots.

“The greatest challenge to the dining sector, at all price points, is providing the convenience consumers want without compromising quality or the provenance of ingredients,” says Rahul Parekh, EatFirst’s chief executive and co-founder. “Delivery is often an afterthought for conventional restaurants and the food often suffers.”

After work, those with a greater sense of adventure can dine with strangers in someone’s house, co-ordinated by a social dining platform such as WeFiFo or VizEat. Or they can give themselves up to an “immersive dining event”, as hosted by Gingerline, without knowing anything advance.

“There’s a real desire for adventure, risk and surprise now, because our daily lives are so regimented,” says Suz Mountfort, Gingerline’s founder. “This is the gap we fill. Everything is a secret – the location, the menu, the concept and the experience – so people have to be genuinely brave to book.”

Of the future for the restaurant industry, she concludes: “It’s about embracing disruption. Work with some of the brands that are shaking things up and see how you can support each other. And go back to the drawing board – who are your customers and what do they really want? If you can give them that, there’s no reason why challengers to the dining sector should cause concern.”