Takeout: A Brief History Of A Not-So-Modern Phenomenon
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IN the bustling streets of modern metropolises, time indeed is the most precious commodity; and takeout food, an indispensable part of its social fabric. With a few swipes on a smartphone app, food promptly arrives at our doorstep, ready to satiate our cravings without the laborious commitment of a restaurant visit. Takeout food as a phenomenon has truly metamorphosed modern dining culture.


Surprisingly though, the concept of ordering food for takeout is not a recent development.

In fact, the Thermopoliums of Ancient Rome are regarded as the true precursors of modern-day takeout food. These establishments, operated by skilled cooks, catered to the working class individuals who resided in modest dwellings that lacked functional kitchens. The Thermopoliums offered a convenient solution for these individuals, providing them with ready-to-eat meals that could be easily procured and consumed on the go. This concept of acquiring and enjoying a hot meal without the burden of subsequent cleanup did not gain widespread popularity in the Western world until the 1780s, when Parisians pioneered the establishment of restaurer, or "restoration" places, where individuals could revitalise their health by indulging in prepared meals.



The idea of takeout food further gained traction in the United States during the 19th century. Much like ancient Rome, those facing financial struggles or setting out for long journeys could readily purchase premade sandwiches and salads from shops. Notably, the era of ‘Jim Crow’, a term pejoratively used to describe Black Americans, witnessed a different facet of takeout food. With laws barring Black Southerners from dining inside restaurants, they had to resort to ordering their meals to go. This necessity led many Black Southern women to seize the opportunity and venture into cooking and selling their own food, particularly during lunchtime. Some of these women became remarkably successful with their culinary offerings becoming renowned. For instance, Gordonsville, Virginia became a sought-after destination for both Southern locals and Northerners, drawn by the reputation of its exceptional fried chicken, created and sold by these enterprising women.


The earliest documented instance of food delivery took place in 1889, which would forever alter the gastronomic landscape. During a visit by the King and Queen of Italy, their palates were left unsatisfied by the local fare. Compounded by the Queen falling ill, the royal family sought solace in more traditional Italian cuisine. It was then that the renowned chef Raffaele Esposito, at the helm of the now legendary Pizzaria di Pietro e Basta Cosi, rose to the occasion. Demonstrating his culinary prowess, Esposito meticulously crafted his signature pizza and personally undertook the task of delivering it to the Queen. Legend has it that the amalgamation of mozzarella and basil toppings impressed her, and thus, in honour of this auspicious encounter, Esposito immortalised the Queen's appreciation by christening the creation the "Margherita" pizza. 



Simultaneously in colonial India, the food delivery industry was being taken by a storm by the unassuming dabbawala system. The bedrock of Mumbai’s ‘office culture,’ dabbas or hot lunch tiffins were instituted by Mahadeo Havaji Bacche, a certain Parsi banker, in 1890.  Driven by his yearning for wholesome home-cooked meals in his workplace, he enlisted 100 men to execute the delivery, thereby sowing the seeds of a nascent enterprise. This modest commencement, fuelled by the efforts of a mere hundred dabbawalas, would ultimately germinate into the flourishing enterprise that we recognise today.


But the baton of takeaway food is not borne by pizza or dabbas alone; the contribution of Chinese takeout was as pivotal in redefining delivery cuisine. In 1922, Kin-Chu cafe in downtown Los Angeles became the pioneer in the United States, who proudly proclaimed to be the sole purveyor of authentic Chinese dishes, meticulously crafted and promptly delivered to customers. Unfortunately, the flourishing delivery food industry suffered a major setback with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, as financial constraints curtailed indulgences in such luxuries and conveniences. 



It wasn't until 1944, when The New York Times introduced pizza to its readers, hailing it as the perfect food for takeout and delivery, that people's curiosity was piqued. The immense popularity of pizza played a crucial role, fueled by the return of soldiers from the Italian front, who brought back a deep appreciation for the pasta and pizzas they had encountered abroad. By the 1950s, pizza parlours began to crop up throughout the nation, capitalising on its widespread appeal, which, as Queen Margherita had discovered years earlier, proved to be remarkably suitable for travel.

The second catalyst was the mass migration of urban dwellers to suburban areas following the war, driven by the affordability and desirability of suburban housing. While this shift towards a family-centric suburban lifestyle was viewed as the epitome of the American dream, it dealt a significant blow to the restaurant industry, as home cooking became the norm. However, the advent of television as a popular form of entertainment in the 1950s, coupled with newfound disposable income, fundamentally altered the collective dining ethos. 

In 1953, the Swanson and Sons company introduced a revolutionary concept: the "TV dinner." These prepackaged frozen meals, designed to be heated at home and enjoyed in front of the television, were both aspirational and convenient. This cultural shift did not go unnoticed by struggling restaurateurs, who promptly recognised the potential of offering delivery services to their clientele for an additional fee. The impact was remarkable, as these enterprising establishments experienced a staggering 50 percent increase in revenue. Leading the way, Casa D'Amore in Los Angeles emerged as the trailblazer, being the first to provide free delivery for orders exceeding $2.50. 



Fast-forwarding to the 1990s, Pizza Hut revolutionised the industry once again with the launch of Pizzanet, despite its delivery service being limited to Santa Cruz. Pizzanet, being one of the earliest websites on the internet, marked pizza as one of the first commodities bought and sold online. This development showcased the immense potential of e-commerce and set the stage for the digital transformation of the food delivery landscape.

In 1995, the emergence of World Wide Waiter marked a pivotal moment as the first online restaurant delivery service. Operating initially in the California Bay Area, this innovative platform offered customers access to over 60 different restaurants, akin to an early version of a Zomato or Swiggy. Recognising the untapped potential, Seamless Web entered the scene in 1999, addressing the frustrations of New York businessmen who yearned for a service that could rival the West Coast's convenience. By allowing corporate clients to order large quantities of food from restaurants, Seamless Web paved the way for a new era of streamlined online food delivery.