Joel Buchanan is sitting in his car in Toronto’s entertainment district when his smartphone begins to beep.
“Just got an order,” says the 27-year-old driver for “virtual restaurant” Feast, his eyes scanning the screen. From a warming bag in his trunk, he retrieves the item – mussel and corn chowder – before returning to the driver’s seat to key the address into his smartphone.
Minutes later, Mr. Buchanan pulls up to the condo building just around the corner, and a ponytailed young woman comes down to meet him. From the time she placed the order, at 11:03 a.m., to the time the soup is in her hands, just nine minutes have passed.
It used to be that food delivery required a telephone, a 30-minute-or-longer wait and an insatiable appetite for pizza or Chinese. But over the past few years, as the food industry feels the effects of so-called disruptive technology and the rise of services such as “instant delivery” – which lets people purchase chef-prepared meals delivered in 15 minutes or less – this is no longer the case. As with all disruptive technologies, these services have raised red flags with local regulators, and left traditional players scrambling to adapt. They are also changing the way we eat.
The fleet of Feast vehicles is just one of many to descend in Toronto in the past few years, the consequence of global giants such as Silicon Valley-based Uber, Germany-based Foodora and smaller local companies all battling it out to become Canada’s biggest player.
Some of these services, like Foodora, are an extension of traditional delivery: Users browse the menus of dozens of restaurants in one place, pay using the app and have their order delivered to their door.
Other companies provide entirely new services. Toronto-based Ritual, for example, does not provide delivery, but does allow users to order a meal from a nearby restaurant, pay through the app and bypass lines when picking up the food.
Others still, such as Feast or UberEats, offer “instant delivery.” This involves a fleet of cars loaded with prepared meals – like the one Mr. Buchanan drives – hovering at strategic spots in the downtown core, and ready to deliver an order within minutes.
These new technologies have significant effects on the way we think about and interact with our food, according to John Lang, a sociology professor at Occidental College in California.
“It feeds into this whole ‘food-as-fuel’ trend that we see. It’s divorcing food from all sorts of meanings,” Lang says of the experience of ordering food via mobile apps. “It really increases the distance between pleasure, friends, cultural heritage.”
He adds that these meals are often consumed alone, as in the case of office workers sitting in front of their computers. And even when people such as family members are eating together, these services allow each person to consume an entirely different meal. “In a sense, we’re losing that kind of shared-meal response.”
The most extreme example of this disruptive spirit is a Toronto-based app called MealSurfers. It was launched late last year, and lets home cooks prepare and sell meals from their own kitchens. It did not take long to attract the attention of Toronto Public Health. At the same time, at least one municipal councillor raised concerns about these meals being prepared in residential kitchens – which is against zoning bylaws.
MealSurfer’s founder, Ali Jiwani, says he and his partners spent months poring over regulations with lawyers, but they acknowledge that their app is still “a work in progress.” MealSurfers is still operating, but Jiwani says they are in the midst of reassessing their business model – all the while continuing to lobby policy makers to change existing laws.
“Someone’s gonna be the next Airbnb or the Uber for food,” he says. “At some point, this is going to happen. It’s just a question of where do we stand, and what do we want?”
The idea for Feast also began as a marketplace for home cooks, says the company’s chief executive officer, Steve Harmer. But after some initial research, Harmer quickly realized that the model “didn’t really make sense.” Instead, the company set up its own commercial kitchen, with a crew of 13 cooks, to provide instant delivery. Each day, Feast workers load up a fleet of five cars and 17 bikes with dozens and dozens of meals before the lunch rush, each of which are each assigned to strategic zones in downtown. From there, the drivers are dispatched to deliver orders as they come in.
Like his competitors, Mr. Harmer has plans to expand quickly. Just three months in, the company is already serving dinner in addition to lunch, and plans on launching an outpost in Vancouver by the end of this year, and into the United States within a few years. Foodora, which acquired Toronto-based Hurrier earlier this year, is already advertising job opportunities in Vancouver.
By 7 a.m. most days, the Feast kitchen is in full swing prepping for lunch service – a menu that emphasizes local, sustainable, healthy options under the watchful eye of executive chef Curt Martin. Most of the meals are prepared by mid-morning, at which time the Feast cooks turn their attention to packing. The steak Cobb salads and jerk chicken sandwiches are placed in compostable boxes, while the chowder is carefully ladled into small clear containers the size of a margarine tub. The hot items are placed in large warming bags, and cold items are stored separately.
Packaging and delivery are an ongoing struggle for most of these companies, and certain foods – such as sandwiches and salads, which are portable and easy to hold together – tend to be most commonly offered. Dishes such as soups and stews, or deep-fried foods prone to sogginess, are more challenging.
Other companies, such as UberEats, provide restaurants with “learnings” on what types of dishes work the best, UberEverything general manager Bowie Cheung says. The company also shares simple tricks with its partners, such as how to stack a sandwich to avoid soggy bread. Also shared is information on what types of meals tend to be most popular on given days: healthier items such as salads on Mondays, and more indulgent ones later in the week.
By 10:45 a.m., Feast’s fleet is on the road. Each vehicle covers a portion of downtown – in Buchanan’s case, the entertainment district. As soon as a user places an order, the system relays the information to a routing program, which determines which driver is best positioned to handle the order. The driver is then alerted. Lunch service runs from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., meaning that no meal sits in the warming or cooling bags on a vehicle for more than a couple of hours.
The complexity of such systems is why many restaurants opt to work with companies such as UberEats and Foodora, essentially outsourcing their online marketing and delivery. “They have the money to do what I can’t,” says Lisa Labute, who owns The Goods, a small takeout shop in Toronto’s west end. She says her business has gone up by one-third since partnering with UberEats, and she also likes that any remaining meals are donated to local charities.
Others are less impressed. Services such as UberEats charge the restaurant a percentage of the menu price – a figure Cheung would not confirm, but which media reports have pegged at 30 per cent. The model is based on the assumption that, because restaurants are already operating during those hours, the extra orders can be handled by existing staff and not cut into profit margins.
But for some restaurants, this is not always the case. “The challenge becomes when the people who process these orders are overwhelmed, and then we do have to hire another person to fulfill them,” says restaurant owner Zane Caplansky, who works with both UberEats and Foodora. “Once that happens, then you’re losing money, and that’s not cool.”
Even if this not happening, restaurant owners who load the extra orders onto existing staff can run the risk of overworking already exhausted employees – a heated topic in the industry.
“Kitchens are tough places to be. … Do we run the risk of making it an even more unpleasant place to be? Yes,” says Mike von Massow, an economics professor at the University of Guelph.
On the other hand, he says, they may also allow restaurants to generate more revenue, and potentially pass that on to staff.
After Buchanan drops off the chowder at the condo building, an order for a jerk chicken sandwich comes from an office building just a few blocks away. Ahmad Antar, the young man who placed the order, says he is new to Feast, but not to app-based food delivery.
“My last UberEats experience was not very good,” he says. “I got, like, a really small piece of meat with my lamb curry. It just wasn’t really good.”
The risk of not hearing this kind of feedback – and placing his brand in the hands of an outside company – is the main reason Caplansky says he plans to end his partnership with these services in the not-so-distant future.
“They maintain the relationship with the customer,” he says. “Also, their delivery person becomes our representative at the door – how loyal are these people to us? How much do they really care about our customers?”
From a business standpoint – and just to reduce the possibility of problems with orders – Caplansky prefers to interact directly with customers.
And the opposite can be true too: that these services can cause customers to lose sight of the people, and ingredients, behind their food.
Critics have long warned of how separated most consumers are from the production of food – and particularly those living in urban areas. These apps exacerbate the trend, Lang says. “It helps us lose sight of the bodies behind our food. We’re even less likely to encounter them now,” he says. “I think the further we are from that, it’s easier to discount the labour.”
After about an hour on the road, Buchanan has circled the same few blocks of downtown Toronto a handful of times, visiting some buildings several times over. As he approaches yet another brick office building, he slows down dramatically to avoid a large puddle. “Make sure I don’t splash her,” he says under his breath before jumping out to meet the customer.
Parked just down the block is a bicycle, with a delivery person from a competing company. As they pass, neither one appears to notice the other.
A road map of Canada’s recent food tech startups
UberEats is an offshoot of the Silicon-Valley based ride-sharing giant, valued at more than $50-billion (U.S.). The company chose Toronto as its first city to launch the standalone UberEats app, but also operates in Paris and a number of U.S. cities, and has its eye on expanding into other Canadian cities. The company also offers an “instant“ option, promising meals in 10 minutes or less.
In January, Foodora – a global firm that operates in more than 11 countries but is based in Germany – acquired the Toronto-based Hurrier, and also partners with local restaurants to provide delivery. Foodora itself was acquired last year by Delivery Hero, a food-delivery company valued at more than $3-billion.
Toronto-based Feast bills itself as a “virtual restaurant,” offering instant (15 minutes or less) delivery of its chef-prepared meals in the Toronto downtown core. The company was founded by former Blast Radius Canada managing director Steve Harmer, and has plans to expand across Canada and into the United States.
Canadian startup Chowdy offers weekly supplies of chef-made meals users can reheat at home. Other Toronto-based companies, such as Fuel Foods, offer similar services.
Bypass the line
App-based services such as Grabb, Ritual and Hangry all allow users to order and pay for meals ahead of time, and skip the line when going to pick up their meals.