The on-demand economy has been on the rise for the last few years. Streaming services lead the charge, with apps like Netflix and Spotify putting gargantuan collections of movies and music at our fingertips instantly. Uber and Lyft have made hailing a taxi painfree and opened up great swaths of the country that could never justify a real taxi presence to on-demand transportation. And Amazon’s increased delivery speed, in many cases within hours, not days, as well as the company’s centrally-located locker pickup locations, have made eCommerce completely pain-free.
But these last few months have accelerated the on-demand demand for another important purchase: food. Services like Uber Eats and Postmates have seen a huge spike in usage as restaurants remain closed and people continue to shelter in place. But despite how popular these platforms have become, the actual process of getting a food delivered hasn’t changed much since the first pizza delivery back in 1889. Sure, we use our app to order a meal now, but by and large the food is brought to our homes by a delivery person, one order at a time
That’s finally changing, though. New service providers are reimagining how we get our food, with major implications for our offices, schools, and homes. Ghost kitchens were one of the earliest advances in food delivery tech. These kitchen spaces, often shared between multiple restaurants, allow for food preparation and delivery but not dine-in guests. They bring down a restaurant’s overhead, since the cost of an industrial kitchen is much lower than a retail location. They also allow restaurants to expand their delivery reach since these kitchens can be placed throughout a city and so are not dependent on one central location.
Now we are seeing companies trying to innovate food delivery by using robots to deliver food instead of humans. Drone food delivery has been discussed extensively over the last few years, but it seems that ground-based robots are a lot closer to reality. These are seeing particular utility in closed systems like universities. At Northern Arizona University, Starship Technologies, a delivery robot provider, provides ground-based delivery bots that take food from local restaurants to diners across campus. According to NAU’s Director of Campus Dining, Ben Hartley, in a 2019 interview, “We’re currently doing about 200 orders a day. We expect that number to double in the next week or two.” Now, delivery robots are coming to southern Arizona, where they will be deployed as part of the University of Arizona’s back-to-school COVID-19 response plan for Fall 2020, per a July email from Dr. Robert Robbins, the university’s President.
While they are useful for reducing contact amidst the pandemic, delivery robots have limitations. They require people to be ready at the right time to collect their food, just like a traditional food delivery person. And according to Steven Sperry, Founder and CEO of Minnow, a company that makes food pickup pods, “You can’t have thousands of robots driving around on sidewalks. So you have to have a way to deliver food in bulk.” Minnow’s solution relies on private lockers similar to Amazon’s, placed in an apartment or office building’s lobby or mailroom, that allow delivery people to leave food deliveries. The lockers are designed to limit messes, come equipped with built-in sensors that detect when food is deposited or retrieved, and only allow pickup for a couple hours, to prevent spoilage.
Mr. Sperry mentioned that one of the strengths of the pickup locker approach was that it allows diners to pick up the food at their convenience, and not have to jump off the phone or drop a task to run to get the door. And he is confident that people will want to keep contact with delivery people to a minimum for a long time coming, even after COVID-19. “Every three to five years one of these viruses emerges. This one happens to be particularly infectious, but there will be others. For building owners and restaurants, the risk calculation is going to change. We are going to be thinking, ‘how do we make sure we don’t get caught flat-footed when the next pandemic hits? We won’t need to shut down our whole economy like we did this time.”
There’s no doubt that making food delivery safer provides a valuable service during the outbreak, but it goes farther than that. “We see incredible inefficiencies for one-off ordering, especially in food delivery,” said Everett Lynn, founder and CEO of Amenify, a marketplace for connecting apartment buildings with local businesses. “Forty to fifty percent of consumer cost is wasted with single order delivery, and delivery apps charge restaurants a hefty fee for their services. Apartment communities are naturally positioned to solve this challenge.”
Companies like Amenify are also bringing back an important aspect of the restaurant experience that has been lost in the world of on-demand delivery: discovery. So many new restaurants are struggling to get their names out there now that many people are just searching through delivery apps for their favorite meals. By finding and promoting local restaurants Lynn hopes to support small restaurateurs trying to find their way in these difficult times. He also said that the predicability and uniformity of bulk orders helps restaurants keep their costs down and profits up.
Making food delivery truly on-demand changes the logic of location decisions for businesses, too. Once a building has a way to access a potentially wide range of cuisines instantly, tenants and consequently landlords may stop paying such close attention to things like proximity to nearby food options. The ripple effect of this is that restaurants in turn may revise their location criteria, since ghost kitchens can serve office blocks and apartment complexes with greater efficiency than full restaurants ever could.
Our on-demand services have been lifesavers during the COVID-19 crisis. Uber has absorbed a big share of public transit ridership, in some cases even through deliberate partnerships with local transit authorities via subsidized services for essential services. Netflix has been a pressure release valve for the recreation-starved masses deprived of theatrical releases. And food delivery has been one of the relatively few luxuries we can reliably look forward to. Making it possible to get that food without having to leave the building, and without having to be ready to meet a delivery person, changes much more than just the dinner menu.