Fueled by a restaurant-crippling virus, food delivery fundamentally reshaped the way we dine during the pandemic.

As ordering in became an indispensable part of daily life, a small industry segment hitherto limited to pizza and Chinese saw exponential growth. According to a Mckinsey & Company report, published last year, food delivery has become a global market worth more than $150 billion, having more than tripled since 2017.

Yet despite this meteoric rise, delivery is often associated with lacklustre menus, limited range and substandard quality. A big part of the reason is that restaurants tend to put everything they have on their dine-in menus onto their delivery menus. A lot of the food just doesn’t travel well.

Add to that the challenges of depending on third-party aggregators like Swiggy and Zomato, which leaves little control over last-mile delivery. The result: wilting salads, mushy fries, soggy wraps, gooey pasta, squashed cakes. The list of crimes goes on and on.

During the depths of the pandemic, consumers had little option than to put up with this mediocrity. Owing to frequent shutdowns, delivery was often the only game in town. But as the Omicron wave dissipates and dine-in makes a comeback, people expect more from their food orders, demanding speed of delivery, revamped menus, and fail-proof order accuracy.

Even as restaurants and bars reopen, it’s clear food delivery is not going away anywhere. Covid certainly won’t be the last contagion to hit the world. And with consumers used to digital ordering, the trend toward convenience is growing even more pronounced.

Michael Beacham, president REEF Technology, an American real estate and cloud kitchen startup, reiterated that we are never going back to a pre-pandemic way of eating. “We are emerging in a world in which more people are choosing to order dinner than go grocery shopping, more people have downloaded delivery apps, and more people are willing to try restaurants that only exist online,” he noted while speaking at the Food On Demand conference in Las Vegas in November.

When it comes to consumer demand, delivery is still scratching the surface. Restaurants want to tap into this vast pool of potential demand by leveraging their brand equity and growing their delivery footprints.

As the space becomes more competitive, there is a mindset change in the approach to food quality and packaging. The shift has been most apparent in making menus more delivery friendly. This includes everything from maintaining the correct hot and cold holding temperatures of the food so it reaches the consumer as planned, to rethinking the food itself.

An evolving food-delivery ecosystem demands variety. Many restaurants have created brand spin-offs targeting new demographics, cuisine types and meal occasions. The recently launched Art of Dum, a gourmet kitchen that delivers in Mumbai and Bengaluru as well as Dubai, specializes in dum pukht delicacies like biryanis slow-cooked in mitti handis.

Homing in on the love for Mumbai favourites, ITC has curated a Local Love menu featuring dishes like batata nu shaak, Konkan fish curry, and kombdi cha tambda rassa.

Occasion-led meals continue to spawn new themes. Olive Bar and Kitchen’s gourmet boxes offer multiple experiences like Date Night, Brunch and Hangover Healer for people to enjoy in the comfort of their homes. To create a more personalized “experience,” they even incorporate flowers and a runner to adorn the dining table, with a special curated Spotify playlist to accompany the meal.

To woo grilling lovers, Hunan, a leading pan-Asian eatery in Bengaluru, sent across single-use grills along with a special menu, marinated meats and vegetables and a playlist specially created by a DJ. To engage with home cooks, they have also come up with a line of stir-fry and dipping sauces under the brand name Hunan at Home.

In keeping with the farm-to-table ideology, seasonal and hyper-local ingredients are finding their way into at-home menus. Toast and Tonic’s Karan Upmanyu, who puts produce at the core of the restaurant’s culinary philosophy, pairs gongura leaves with a sharp cheddar and batter-fried bhetki to perk up a fillet-o-fish sandwich.

Chennai-based Butterheads, a delivery-only offering of salads, bowls and yoghurt smoothies, curates seasonal menus showcasing produce like snake beans, red matta rice and seeraga samba rice. “We also partner with local farmers in and around the city who produce hydroponic lettuce, cherry tomatoes and herbs,” said the brand’s owner Abbas Shahzad.

Recognising that packaging is a critical customer touch point for a delivery-only model, Rebel Foods introduced octagonal pizza boxes for its brand Ovenstory. “This unique shape helps ensure that the pizza does not move in transit to maximize customer satisfaction,” said Raghav Joshi, the co-founder of the online restaurant company, which owns 11 cloud kitchens including Behrouz Biryani.

Moving away from single-use plastic, The Village Shop, an organic café based in Mumbai, is in the process of switching from bagasse (the current leader in eco-friendly packaging) to Zume, a global brand that offers compostable, plant-fibre based containers. “Zume is leak-proof like plastic, but fully biodegradable,” explained the café’s co-owner Javed Malik.

The logistics of delivery are changing as well. During the pandemic, many in the restaurant world found the commissions to aggregators unviable. “The three Ds of delivery—discounts, discovery and the actual delivery—take away 35% of the topline. After subtracting food and labour costs, what remains is an increasing diminutive slice of the pie,” complained Riyaaz Amlani, CEO, Impresario, summing up the industry sentiment.

To reduce dependence on Swiggy and Zomato, several brands are choosing direct-delivery alternatives like Dotpe, Thrive and Peppo. By unbundling the aggregator value proposition, these platforms enable restaurants to work with businesses of their choice.

“Direct deliveries not only gave us better commission rates, profit margins, and control over data, but also created an opportunity to reach a wider set of people which food aggregators could not reach to due to limited delivery radius,” noted Sameer Seth, Partner, Hunger Inc Hospitality.

As these restaurant enablers grow, further improvements are emerging. “Thrive’s WhatsApp-enabled Commerce, a global first, will allow customers to directly order from restaurants via WhatsApp chat itself, right from browsing the menu to payments,” shared Thrive co-founder Dhruv Dewan.

Not everyone, however, is a fan of delivery. Chef Abhijit Saha, who launched Pet People Café and Glass in Bengaluru last year, dislikes the business model because of the quantum of waste it generates. “It also takes away from the joy of on-premise dining.”

Others, like Hitesh Keswani, CEO Silver Beach Hospitality, believe delivery erodes experience-based brands. “My restaurants Opa Kipos and Estella are, ‘destinations’. They bring a lot more than food to the table: the vibe, location, the service and the overall experience. Both have a very unique setting that cannot and shouldn’t be replicated,” he stressed.

Everyone, however, concurs that food-on-demand is here to stay. Long after the pandemic is over, mobile ordering will continue to grow, improve, and flourish.

Malik, who is toying with the idea of introducing a vegan-friendly vertical, believes specialized food deliveries will be on the rise. “After gourmet burgers and sandwiches, it could be health-driven niches like organic, gluten-free and paleo,” he predicted.

Augustine Kurian, Partner, DumBir, a biryani-focused delivery brand in Chennai, believes the key game changer would be proximity to consumers, which will ensure faster delivery of hot food. The group is planning to operate more outlets, as “consumers decide in the last minute and have begun to expect a quicker turnaround time for deliveries.”

Rubbishing the notion that only a cheap, subpar meal can come out of a cloud kitchen, Varun Inamdar, owner Mumbai Local Tawa, emphasized the role of technology in optimising operations. The veteran is already exploring his own tech-enabled formats including a ‘cockpit kitchen,’ where everything is at arm’s reach, just like a pilot's cockpit, and ‘gig kitchens,’ or make-and-break stage kitchens, built for a small time-bound jobs.

Rebel Foods, which positions itself as the Thrasio of the food world, is developing Rebel Operating System (OS), a system of intelligent machines that will allow them to efficiently run multiple brands from the same kitchen. Automation is further helping them to address scalability issues. “Our innovations, like the automatic wok and automated fryer help us in maintaining product consistency with each dish we prepare,” Joshi pointed out.

Globally, innovations are afoot to right the wrongs of delivery—everything from vented fry containers that prevent the moisture build up that makes fries soggy, to tamper evident packaging, or take out bags can be sealed with an adhesive that will tear the bag if removed.

As automation kicks in, many of the current problems associated with delivery will be ironed out. In the not so distant future, we would still be ordering food in our pajamas. But our delivery couriers will likely be robots, drones or parachutes. Hopefully, the fries will be crisp.

Sona Bahadur is a Mumbai-based food writer.