Complex Made Simple

What the first pizza delivery in history can teach us about changing customer expectations

With ever-changing customer expectations and technological advancements, businesses best be prepared to keep up with demands of royalty-caliber if they want to stay competitive in the modern day.

A brief look through history will show us that many services we often take for granted today originally existed solely for royalty and the elite, made widely available through advancements in technology, transportation, and infrastructure We can trace this evolution of consumer expectations through something as simple as food delivery, which has its roots among royalty Across history, even businesses as basic as F&B establishments have had to adapt repeatedly or risk bankruptcy and obsolesence

As the saying goes, “progress waits for no one,” and that’s very much how it’s always been in the business and retail world. Advances in technology herald with them changes in consumer behavior and expectations, and businesses need to play catch up. 

A prime example of this lies within the F&B industry, and food delivery to be precise. 

The first pizza delivery

Food takeout originated in Ancient Rome, where street kitchens (thermapolia) would sell food to passersby, especially those who could not afford their own kitchens. 

As for food delivery, the first recorded instance is widely believed to have occurred during 1889 when Italy’s King Umberto and Queen Margherita were craving some pizza but couldn’t be bothered to leave their residence to eat it. They ordered the famous chef, Raffaele Esposito, considered by many to be the father of modern pizza, to have it delivered to their palace in Naples. 

Some Korean reports also refer to cold noodle (naengmyun) delivery having been available in the country as early as 1768, where noblemen and royalty would order these dishes to their residences and meetings. 

While these were isolated events, they set the precedent for services we often take for granted today that originally existed solely for royalty and the elite, but were made widely available through advancements in technology, transportation, and infrastructure.  

Soon after this, in the early 20th century, food delivery would slowly but surely become a mainstay of urban culture, as infrastructure improved and personal transportation would become more affordable. 

“In 1922, [Los Angeles-based] Kin-Chu café proclaimed that is was “the only place on the West Coast making and delivering real Chinese food,'” the TIME writes. “One phone call and the restaurant would ‘deliver hot dishes direct to you,’ even as late as 1:00 a.m.”

Around this time, telephones were still wired and calls would need to be patched through an operator, so ordering takeout was still somewhat of a hassle, but we were slowly getting there. 

Fast-forward to 1945, after World War 2 had ended. In the US, Americans were moving out of the city and to the suburbs, and consumerism was well and truly blossoming. Around this time, many citizens were spending more time at home with their eyes glued to this new marvel they had come to know as the television, which posed a serious problem for restaurants. 

Forced to adapt, most restaurants decided to bring the food to the consumers themselves, offering food delivery. By the late 1950s, driving a meal to the customer became an industry staple, and customers would come to expect all of their favorite restaurants to offer it. If they didn’t, they’d just order from restaurants that did – often competitors. 

So, what was once a royalty privilege, and soon after a novelty offered by some restaurants, became a mainstay of the F&B industry as establishments had to adapt around new inventions and consumer behavior, not much different from how things are today, and have always been. 

The world wide web makes its entrance

Around the time the internet rolled around, we began seeing websites pop up across the net offering a rudimentary version of what we know today as online delivery. Companies like Grubhub, which started in 2004, would be among the earliest to offer this, as internet penetration across the world improved. This meant that customer expectations would once again change, as new improvements in communication technology meant there would be more convenient ways to do things – food delivery included. 

After all, what’s quicker and more convenient than placing a call to order a pizza? Clicking for one online. 

Restaurants once more had to adapt, either by launching their own online delivery websites, or by signing up with third-party companies like Grubhub. Again, it was either this or lose out to restaurants that did sell online. If the situation with people staying at home to watch TV was problematic in the 50s, imagine how much of a threat the internet, with its endless content, posed for the F&B industry. 

Soon, online delivery would become even more of a staple, as dedicated apps and businesses would pop up around it, offering restaurants a chance to stay competitive. Today, we are all familiar with apps like Uber Eats, Talabat, Zomato, and Toters. The system they have in place is not perfect, with a lot of disputes surrounding the fees they charge restaurants often in the news, but for many establishments, it’s better than going bust. Another common point of contention concerns the discounts and special offers consumers have come to expect from online delivery apps, which puts even more financial strain on restaurants. 

COVID-19 and lockdowns
The latest market shift has come courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put even more pressure on restaurants to adapt to an online delivery business model. However, they now had to factor in additional concerns regarding health and safety, such as how payment to drivers is made and how food is handed to the customer. 

When we factor in customer expectations regarding branding, marketing techniques, discounts, and delivery speeds, restaurants clearly have their work cut out for them.

What we can learn from all this is that, cliché as it may sound, change is inevitable, and as technology and infrastructure evolved across history, so too did consumer behavior and expectations, forcing businesses like restaurants to adapt to survive. 

Today, we are experiencing an interesting anomaly in the form of this pandemic, with many companies finding themselves forced to adapt their business models to a social-distancing world. With tourism a fraction of what it used to be, hotels are offering staycation offers lest they go entirely bankrupt; schools are having to haphazardly adapt to distance learning to justify the fees students have already paid; and some retailers are offering gift cards as a way to bring in cash without actually having to sell anything. 

With ever-changing customer expectations and technological advancements, businesses best be prepared to keep up with demands of royalty-caliber if they want to stay competitive in the modern day.