Not long ago, buying food online was seen as a strange, outlandish concept.
David Chapman, co-owner of Taradale- based school lunch ordering service Lunch Online, tells me that when the service launched in 2011, the idea that parents of school pupils would order their children’s school lunches online was met with derision by many schools, who didn’t think enough parents were online to make it worthwhile.
Now Lunch Online has 200 New Zealand schools on its books, and is rapidly gaining more. And according to the BayBuzz Food Survey, more than a third (36%) of those who responded report that they have purchased food online. Nielsen says data from various countries indicates about 25% say they order groceries online. What is driving this rapid shift into mainstream acceptance?
First of all, the web is profoundly affecting our relationship with food. Food websites and blogs have made high-end home cooking much more accessible, while ‘on the ground’ growing fruit and vegetables has become normal again. For many of us, cooking has gone from a chore to a hobby, to a luxury activity, and a whole cottage industry has emerged to cater to the new foodies.
There are literally millions of online recipes, instructional videos on YouTube, and vast websites specialising in arcane sub genres of cuisine – e.g., Southern-style barbecue, home-cured charcuterie, and craft beer. A butcher at New World recently told me that his job is getting harder because customers are asking for exotic cuts of meat that he has never heard of, because they have read about them online or on TV.
At the same time that our awareness of healthy food options has increased, and there is much more choice and new ideas for eating, our relationship with food is also showing some disturbing and dysfunctional characteristics.
As the obesity epidemic becomes entrenched and social media and the clickbait economy increasingly shape our opinions, we’re seeing the same trends in food as in our relationship with the political system: a growing distrust of the establishment and perceived elites.
Thus we see the ‘fast food nation’ depicted in documentaries like Supersize Me, conspiracy theories and blame- shifting (‘big sugar’), a return to perceived traditional values (think full-fat milk, the rejection of ‘processed’ food), the emergence of tribes with very narrow interests (e.g. ‘clean eating’), self-described ‘food porn’ on Instagram, fad diets, pseudoscience, scams, fake news (‘Lose belly fat with this one weird trick’), and a pervasive celebrity culture – TV chefs, food bloggers and even teenage vegans who have millions of followers in social media.
No wonder the idea of cooking a meal for yourself or your family has become a welcome obsession for some, and an overwhelming challenge to others.
After all, the family meal needs to tick a lot of boxes these days: weight control, skin tone, gut microbiome, brain function, sustainability and fair trade; yet be delicious for adults, acceptable to children, photogenic (sorry, Insta-worthy), easy to prepare – and cheap. For many time-pressed people, it’s not surprising that they are turning to someone else to make their meal decisions for them.
From this rapidly changing and confusing landscape have emerged the meal delivery businesses, providing the answer to the question every working time-poor domestic chef dreads: “What the … are we going to have for dinner tonight?” My Food Bag, fronted by the ubiquitous reality TV celebrity chef Nadia Lim, is the clear category leader, and the attractions are obvious.
My friend Melissa started using My Food Bag after receiving gift vouchers. She now uses the service about one week per month: “I love not having to call into the supermarket after work during the week and not having to think about what to have for dinner! We also find it is very good for getting out of the dinner meal ‘rut’ because the recipes are always a bit different from what we would normally cook. Most of the recipes are pretty quick to prepare, and the express meals genuinely only take 30 minutes. The recipes are interesting, delicious, healthy, and very well balanced. The meals are very generous so we normally either get a few lunches or an extra night’s dinner from the leftovers.”
As the demand for home food deliveries grows, expect to see rapid technological change. Google and Amazon are already huge players in the US market for food delivery, and New Zealand has just seen the world’s first pizza delivery by drone.
In the regions, My Food Bag is facing increasingly stiff competition. Havelock North’s On Your Plate, the brainchild of Village Butcher Paul Greaney and caterer Kate Lester, is the 12-week old upstart nipping at My Food Bag’s heels in Hawke’s Bay.
Paul tells me that On Your Plate’s local focus is the key to its rapid uptake. After all, 21st century food orthodoxy dictates that a startup sourcing local ingredients and creating local jobs should trump the metropolitan, corporate machine that My Food Bag is starting to resemble. Asks Paul: “Why would you buy food delivered from Auckland when we’ve got some of the best produce right here in Hawke’s Bay?”
Nearly all of On Your Plate’s marketing and promotional effort goes into Facebook. It’s pretty clear that you can’t succeed in the retail food business without having a heavy Facebook presence. David from Lunch Online sees it the same way. “You need to go where the customers are, and in this case, they are ALL on Facebook.”
Right next door to the On Your Plate office is microbrewery Giant. Chief brewer Chris Ormond is a political reporter who has returned to the Bay, trading in press conferences in the corridors of power for the aroma of malt and hops.
While Giant doesn’t sell its beer online, Chris admits that the two-year old business would not be possible without the Internet. “We have almost a zero marketing budget, other than dabbling in a bit of merchandise and getting involved in events, so we rely heavily on social media. Facebook has been a great way for the business to communicate with other businesses and our customers and followers. Twitter is good for keeping up with news from other breweries and I’m also a fan of Instagram, which is more about telling a story via a photograph.”
All of this making you thirsty or hungry? Just head for your computer, tablet or cell phone, like many of BayBuzz’s other readers. What foods do they tell us they order online?
Everything from Countdown groceries to a week’s worth of meals from My Food Bag or – staying local – On Your Plate to pizza (the favourite). And anything specialty – cheeses, organic spices and powders, health and diet foods, Gourmet Direct meats, organic and free-range meats from Moreish, gluten-free products, veggie boxes from Chantal and Epicurean, olive products from Telegraph Hill, Dutch cocoa powder, and gourmet pies.
Need some wine to wash it down. Try Advintage … or just about any Hawke’s Bay winemaker. Bon appetit!
Matt Miller co-owns web company Mogul Limited, based in Havelock North, but serving clients around the world, including BayBuzz. His beat for BayBuzz is online trends and best practice.