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Even faster fast food

Online ordering schemes offer endless options for hungry diners – and a lifeline for struggling takeaway restaurants. By Meg Carter

Students with late-night munchies and weary workers desperate for weekend treats aren't the only factors driving growth at Domino's Pizza, which last month confirmed plans to open 60 new shops across the UK by the end of the year. Just over 58 per cent of the firm's pizza orders are now placed online, and this is great news – not just for Domino's, but for smaller takeaway-food businesses across the UK.

For although they are still a staple of the high street, takeaway restaurants are having it tough. True, recession made eating in the new eating out. But fierce competition from supermarket ready-meals and growing demand for healthier food dealt the nation's £4.8bn takeaway business a body blow, with sales shrinking by almost 3 per cent a year, recent industry figures show.

Attracting customers has long been a challenge – for smaller outlets, especially, which traditionally rely on local-newspaper advertising and door-to-door leafleting.

"But the situation has got even tougher as technology has made us more social," explains Paul Backman, the managing director of food-services consultancy Horizons. "As we buy more and share more online, takeaway-food companies, whatever their size, have to respond to survive."

Help, however, is at hand from a new generation of online takeaway-ordering services that have launched in recent years as intermediaries between consumers and takeaway restaurants without either the knowledge, time or money to develop an online offering.

Some are national players, such as appetise or hungryhouse. Just Eat is now the UK's largest online takeaway-food delivery provider, representing more than 11,000 UK takeaway restaurants following a number of recent acquisitions. Some, such as Dinner2go in Brighton, are local. All of these services offer users online ordering across an array of cuisines from outlets across the country. Others, however, are niche players – such as Urbanbite (recently acquired by Just Eat), which specialises in takeaway food from respected London restaurant brands including Bombay Palace, Noura and Feng Sushi.

Most use a similar model managing and processing online orders mainly for restaurants which already offer their own delivery service. In exchange, they receive a share of the value of each online order placed – anything from 9 to 11 per cent. A few at the top end of the market, however, do things a little differently. London-based Deliverance, for one, delivers food which is prepared by its own team of chefs. In contrast, Room Service delivers meals freshly prepared directly from London's top restaurants. Housebites, again in London, delivers quality dinners cooked by a local chef for a price in line with an ordinary takeaway.

Steve Barnes, co-founder of appetise, describes online takeaway-ordering services such as his as "win/win" for restaurants and customers. "Restaurants want to focus on cooking great food and providing a great service, which is why few restaurateurs have time or skills for marketing," he explains.

Shamin Hoque, founder and managing director of CurriesOnline – a delivery service representing 1,600 restaurants – agrees. "A big advantage in online ordering is being able to see what other customers have said about a restaurant and finding out about restaurants close by you might not already know," he says. "It's also useful with Indian restaurants, especially where some staff's English is not as good as it might be."

Above all, though, local restaurants offering home delivery will increasingly find they won't be able to afford not to offer online ordering, Hoque believes: "It won't be long before restaurants find if a customer can't place an order online then they'll just go somewhere else."

Yet it's not a model appropriate for everyone, others suggest. "Online ordering is all about convenience for the consumer and immediate access online to a menu they might not have to hand – perhaps from a local restaurant they are not already aware of," says Jim Winship, director of the Pizza, Pasta and Italian Food Association.

"But I'm not sure it's the right approach for all – especially a restaurant that doesn't already provide a delivery service. It's extremely difficult with pizzas, for example, for a kitchen to balance the need of diners waiting for their meal next door with those waiting at home."

For Paul Backman, however, technology promises to transform the dining experience for all of us. He points to restaurants such as Stacked in California, where diners build their own meal not by ordering from a waiter but by using an iPad.

Then there's Red Tomato Pizza in Dubai, which this year launched the VIP Fridge Magnet – a fridge magnet that is synced to your smartphone. Having registered personal information, card details and pizza preferences online, whenever you want to order a pizza all you do is press the magnet and the pizza will be delivered.

"It's not just ordering online, but smart ordering – that's the future," Backman says.