Delivery Through The Decades

From early Roman takeaways to having a whole city's worth of restaurants at your fingertips, we look at the history of the humble takeaway, in association with Deliveroo

Feature | 04 Feb 2016
  • A Dabbawala on a delivery run

Be it some fried chicken, a bowl of noodles or a juicy burger, the story of your weeknight takeaway doesn’t begin in a kitchen. It doesn’t start in your empty fridge. It all kicks off in a distant land, thousands and thousands of years ago. It begins with fire. Fire was conquered by early humans around a million years ago, and we soon worked out that this toasty new toy could be used to cook our food. Instead of taking a bite out of the first thing that came to hand, we realised that we could throw said thing in the fire, and it came out much tastier. Evolution took hold, the years passed, and we continued to develop our culinary abilities. Then one day, we had a thought: “Hey, surely we can get someone else to make the dinner tonight?”

thermopolium

The origins of the takeaway

Fast forward to ancient Rome, and to the earliest forerunner of the takeaway, the thermopolium. These proto-restaurants, found among the ruins of Pompeii, served up ready-made hot food to the Roman lower-classes who didn’t have their own kitchens. The counters might have drawn snobby glances from the Roman upper crust, but the thermopolia’s customers had the right idea – have your food made by professional chefs, no need to do any of the cleaning, and food that’s ready for you when you want it. The only thing missing was the delivery, which would take a while.

Italy was the site of the first pizza delivery, the momentous occasion taking place near Naples in 1889. This time it was the richest people on the block who got in first, as King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Italy found themselves in a spot we’ve all been in – wanting to try the hot new restaurant in town, but unwilling to cope with all the pushing, shoving and generally dealing with people. Luckily for Umberto and Margherita, they were the King and Queen of the country, so they drafted in the best local pizziola to bring them their dinner. Raffaele Esposito’s tomato, basil and mozzarella pizza was a hit with the royals, and soon entered into foodie folklore. Sadly, whether or not the royals left a tip for their delivery went unrecorded by history.

At around the same time, on the other side of the world, an Indian entrepreneur called Mahadeo Havaji Bachche was kickstarting a groundbreaking food delivery business. An immigrant from Pune, new to Mumbai, Mahadeo saw his fellow incomers struggle to find food they wanted at lunchtime, and he hit on a simple plan. The best people to make the workers’ lunches, he reasoned, were those workers’ partners, so why not just round up all the lunches from home and bring them in at lunchtime? Mahadeo started his dabbawala service with around 100 staff, using the Indian capital’s railway network and a complex system of codes and markings to deliver tasty home-cooked food with a frankly terrifying degree of accuracy. Today, 5,000 dabbawalas will deliver around 200,000 lunchboxes across the city, and the chances are they won’t make a single mistake. Think of that the next time you spill your cup of tea after losing track of where your hands are.

Food delivered by horse-drawn cart

Revolutions in food delivery

Meanwhile in the United States, an increasing number of delis and merchants were hitting the roads with horse and cart to provide an ad-hoc food delivery service. New Orleans and New York both saw horse-drawn deliveries of deli snacks, cheeses and oils, while UK families grew to associate the clip-clop of horses with their daily milk deliveries. It makes a change from nipping to the supermarket, we’ll say that much. It took until the 1950s for the takeaway as we now know it to really catch on both in the UK and the US. There was more food, and more money, sloshing around after the Second World War, and people were just beginning to embrace the routine of sitting in front of the telly with their dinner.

Pizza was one of the first widely-delivered foods, but there was just one problem – soggy bottoms. Stop laughing, and we’ll explain what we mean. Pizzas taken straight out of a 400-degree oven have a tendency to let off steam, which if allowed to collect causes your delicious pizza to go a little limp. Initially, vendors placed their pies on a cardboard base inside a loosely-fitted bag, which works a treat, except for the obvious downside that trying to move any more than two pizzas at a time results in toppings getting smooshed all over the place. Tom Monaghan (of Domino’s Pizza fame) stepped in to save pizza fans everywhere when he developed the corrugated cardboard box in the early 1960s, allowing pizzerias to stack their pizzas while venting out the steam, thus saving literally millions of people from the unpardonable sin of damp and disappointing pizza.

Delivery continued to develop bit-by-bit over the course of the 20th century, but it really took the advent of the internet to knock things up a notch. All of a sudden, you could have food brought to your front door without talking to anyone at all. There was a whole world of opportunity out there, just waiting for you to take a big bite out of it. Still, there was a bit of a problem – a lack of variety. By and large, the same types of takeaway and delivery food dominated, and it became easy to get stuck in a bit of a foodie rut.

The arrival of Deliveroo

Enter Deliveroo, with a simple plan to make your nights in that bit more interesting. Deliveroo aims to bridge the gap between restaurants, who make delicious high-quality food, and you, who would like some of that delicious food but also wants to stay in and finish this box set, thanks very much. Deliveroo connect users with a host of local restaurants, from the classic pizzerias and takeaways to gastro-pubs and high-end burger joints, allowing you to browse through dozens of options in quick succession to see what takes your fancy.

Once you’ve settled on your choice, make your order through the Deliveroo website or app, and your chosen restaurant will whip up the food as usual. Meanwhile, one of Deliveroo’s drivers will swoop in, dabbawala-style, to pick up your dinner and ferry it to your door in just over half an hour. Payment’s all dealt with through the website so there’s no need for panicked runs to the nearest cash machine, and because Deliveroo collect the meals and provide the transport there’s a greater choice of at-home food than ever. Pizzas, burgers, Japanese, Thai, a freshly-cooked steak or an array of tacos with all the accompaniments – the choice is well and truly yours.

As technology continues to advance, and we spend more and more of our time with our phones and computers, the humble takeaway looks set to develop even further. Placing your order in emojis? It’s now possible. Menus that can read your eye movements and guess what you want before you make your order? They’re being trialled. But the final frontier of takeaway could lie with another of man’s great achievements – flight. Drone delivery has been mooted by a number of companies, big and small, as the future of the takeaway. We can see some positives – the high drama of your food flying towards you, plus no more awkward hungover chats with delivery drivers, which is surely a bonus for both parties. That said, we also have our reservations, not least some slight worries about what might happen when trying to collect a box of chow mein that’s hovering outside a third-storey window. For now, we’ll stick with the Deliveroo bikes; the world of food is always moving on, but some elements of it will do just fine for the time being.

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