Even faster fast food: Online ordering schemes offer endless options for hungry diners

They're also a lifeline for struggling takeaway restaurants, says 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 owners, but for smaller takeaway food businesses across the UK.

For though 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 now 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, director of food services consultancy Horizon. "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. Scan the web and it won't take long to stumble across one.

Some are national players – such as Appetise or Hungryhouse. Just-Eat, for example, 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 received a share of the value of each online order placed – any- thing 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. Meanwhile, 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 which was set up to enable smaller restaurants to offer online ordering without having to invest in the systems themselves, 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.

"With the economy as it is, customers can afford to eat a delivery meal in for the same price as eating out twice. If there's a group of you, it makes it quick and easy for different people to eat different cuisines from different restaurants. It's secure, and there's less scope for something to go wrong."

Shamin Hoque, founder and managing director of CurriesOnline – a national online delivery service representing 1,600 restaurants throughout the UK – agrees.

"We saw a need a few years back for an online service for Indian restaurants when developing a website for our own family restaurant," he explains.

"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. 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 while a number of larger restaurant chains without a track record in home delivery have recently begun exploring ways to work more closely with online delivery service providers, 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 & Italian Food Association.

"But while it's the way ahead for certain outlets 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. Many who have tried to do both have come unstuck."

For Backman, however, technology promises to transform the dining experience for all of us – whether we eat out or order in to dine at home. 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 earlier this year launched the VIP Fridge Magnet – a pizza box-shaped 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.

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