An app that links you up with restaurants and sends the food round by bike is worth an astonishing £5bn, judged by the bidding war over Just Eat that erupted in the City this week.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Late in the evening my local McDonald’s is a mess of bike couriers (Uber Eats, mostly) picking up the likes of double quarter-pounder cheeseburgers (mmm, 102% of an adult’s entire saturated fat for the day).
At nearby KFC it’s a Deliveroo and Just Eat hangout, with the boys (and it’s mostly boys) queueing to collect and deliver Big Daddy meal boxes containing as much fat as you should eat in an entire day.
Uber charges £3.50 for delivery of a Big Mac to my home, while Deliveroo has a £2.99 delivery charge from KFC, and Just Eat wants £2.94 for sandwiches from Subway.
Yet it takes less than 10 minutes for me to walk to any of them, and most of the online fast-food delivery merchants won’t, in any case, go much further than 1.5 miles.
Takeaways aren’t exactly a new business. Falling into a kebab shop after the pub, picking up a curry on the way home because you can’t be faffed to cook, ordering in pizzas when the wider family is around. I’ve done them all.
But mixing the takeaway business with online portals has sent demand mushrooming. No, maybe that’s too salad-y a word. The UK takeaway business has ballooned into an £8bn market, growing fat on the explosion in apps promising speedy online delivery.
It became fashionable a few years ago to deride millennials for spending money on avocado-on-toast brunches while flicking through their iPhone and moaning about house prices. But spending this much on burger and pizza delivery is bewildering. Financially, nutritionally, environmentally and economically, none of it adds up.
It costs £3 for a basic pizza in Tesco Metro down the road, or a bit more for its “Finest”. Or go online and pay £10-£12, plus delivery from some pizza shack in about 15-20 minutes’ time. Oh, but they taste so different. Really? A lukewarm soggy mega melt in grease-smeared cardboard is not worth four times the price. Or the impact on your waistline. Just make one, at home, with cheaper and fresher ingredients.
At least the cycle delivery guys aren’t pumping out pollution. But researchers at the University of Manchester estimate that around 2,025m disposable takeaway containers are used in the EU every year. Most are not recycled.
Then there is the vast “precariat” workforce behind the new delivery economy. Deliveroo alone works with 60,000 riders, all of whom are “self-employed contractors” without a guaranteed minimum wage, holiday pay or sick pay (though the highest-paid director is understood to have picked up £8.3m in share options last year).
Academic economists have, in recent years, been puzzling over Britain’s dreadful labour productivity record. They obviously don’t get out much. Where once petrol stations invested in car wash machinery, now it’s a gang of labourers with mops in hand. Where people once walked into a KFC or McDonald’s and ordered, now a low-paid worker delivers it instead.
These are jobs that can only ever generate minimal added value, and will always be low wage.
Neither will they ever be net contributors to the tax base of the country. Yet, sadly, they are behind much of our so-called “jobs miracle” and what passes for economic expansion in Britain.
It was former Conservative prime minister Edward Heath, alarmed by the collapse of Britain’s manufacturing industry, who was one of the first to say services could not fill the gap. “We cannot live permanently by taking in each other’s washing,” he said.
Sadly, that’s almost all we seem to do these days. In the UK there are 32.7m jobs, but only 2.9m are in manufacturing. In Germany there are 44.3m jobs, but 24% – 10.6 million people – are engaged in manufacturing. That’s four times as many as the UK. Still, we probably lead the world in burger delivery.