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The History Of Food Delivery: How Fast Takeout Became A Human Fact Of Life

Historical Facts | January 1, 2021

Motorbike food delivery drivers on March 30, 2020 in Bangkok, Thailand. (Getty Images)

Whether you've got a craving for pizza, pot stickers, or pho, there's probably a restaurant that's willing to deliver that scrumptious treat to your door for only a few extra bucks, but that wasn't always the case. While it's hard to think of a world without restaurants, the concept of eating out or ordering in is a relatively modern fact of life.

Ancient Restaurants

Looking back, we can see some evidence of past cultures selling prepared food, like the Thermopoliums of Ancient Rome, where professional cooks prepared food for the working class, some of whom lived in small and sparse dwellings without functional kitchens. Still, the idea of sitting down at an impeccably decorated table and relaxing over a hot meal you don't have to clean up after didn't truly take off in the West until the 1780s, when Parisians established places of restaurer, where a person could "restore health" by eating.

In the United States, takeout food became somewhat common in the 1800s, when—like Rome—people who were struggling financially or simply traveling through could purchase premade sandwiches and salads from shops. Later, in the era of Jim Crow, black Southerners often had to order their restaurant food to-go because many didn't allow them to dine inside.

In turn, many black Southern women took to cooking and selling their own food to workers during lunchtime, with some finding notoriety and success in their business ventures. Gordonsville, Virginia even became somewhat of a destination for travelers as word of the best fried chicken in the region attracted Southerners and Yankees alike.

Margherita of Savoy, Queen of Italy. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The First Pizza Delivery

The first true instance of food delivery, however, occurred in 1889, when the King and Queen of Italy visited Naples and found the local food to be less than desirable. After the Queen fell ill, the royal family sought more traditional Italian fare, so chef Raffaele Esposito of the now iconic Pizzaria di Pietro e Basta Cosi whipped up his famous pizza and delivered it himself to the Queen. He even went so far as to name the mozzarella and basil pizza after her upon hearing her positive review of the meal, and thus the Margherita pizza was born. Fun fact: As hard as it is to imagine Italian cuisine without marinara sauce, tomatoes are actually native to the Americas. Before their introduction, most Italian food was oil- and olive-based.

But delivery isn't just about pizza, and the world would be a very bland place indeed were it not for the delicious wonders of Chinese takeout. In 1922, the Kin Chu Cafe, located in downtown Los Angeles, advertised a special service for their grand opening, claiming to be "the only place on the West Coast making and delivering real Chinese dishes." Sadly, the burgeoning industry of delivery food was thwarted by the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, when people couldn't spend much money on such luxuries or conveniences.

Top view of an opened, uncooked TV dinner. (Sir Beluga/Wikimedia Commons)

Pizza Parlors And TV Dinners

It wasn't until the end of World War II in 1945 that delivery finally burst onto the American culinary scene. The reason for the rise of takeout and delivery in the United States was twofold. First, pizza became wildly popular as soldiers returning from the Italian front brought back with them cravings for the pasta and pizzas they'd discovered while abroad. By the 1950s, pizza parlors were proliferating across the country, and as Queen Margherita discovered decades before, the pie travels well.

Secondly, there was a massive migration from the cities to the suburbs following the war as suburban housing became both affordable and desirable. While many saw this new family-focused life as the epitome of the American dream, the resulting reliance on home cooking dealt major damage to the restaurant industry. Luckily, with unprecedented disposable income and not much to do in the suburbs, television became a major pastime in the '50s, and more and more families found themselves glued to the glowing box during dinnertime. In 1953, the Swanson and Sons company rolled out with their novel "TV dinners," prepackaged frozen meals meant to be heated at home and enjoyed in front of the tube, and it didn't take long for them to start flying off the shelves.

Struggling restaurateurs took notice and began offering delivery services to their customers for a fee, and the ones that did saw their revenue rise by an astounding 50%. Again, Los Angeles paved the way, as Casa D'Amore was the first to offer free delivery for orders over $2.50, and so the intrepid pizza delivery boy was created.

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S. (NIAID/Wikimedia Commons)

Modern Food Delivery

The Internet brought with it, among many things, a whole new level of delivery food, with companies like Pizza Hut allowing consumers to customize and order pizza from their website all the way back in 1994. Soon, other dot-com businesses like Waiter.com sprung up, offering not only easier service but a wider array of choices. 

In 2004, Grub Hub redefined food delivery all over again, not only helping the customer order the food but also supplying the delivery service themselves. This allowed people to order from restaurants without a delivery staff, and a whole new world of convenient culinary delights emerged. Today, consumers can choose from a variety of food delivery apps, and unlike 1889, you don't have to be Italian royalty to get good service. Every month, Americans spend a whopping $16 billion on food delivery, and that number is only going up.

When the novel coronavirus of 2020 made food delivery a near necessity, the restaurant industry faced its greatest struggle of the modern age. As it was during the suburban flight of the 1950s, many shops relied on takeout or delivery to stay afloat. Fortunately, Americans seemed more than happy to oblige, with companies like DoorDash seeing a 110% rise in sales from the previous year. Thanks to new approaches like contactless delivery, those in high risk areas could enjoy a hot meal in the safety of their own homes, no cooking required, all thanks to an Italian queen and the City of Angels.

Tags: fast food industry | food | historical facts

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