Commentary: Food delivery apps are meant to make our lives easier, not worse
While the latest innovations in and growth of the food delivery space is welcomed, it is hard not to notice the opportunity costs of ordering in all the time, says writer Rachel Tey.
SINGAPORE: Growing up, my family did not have the habit of ordering in. It was not until my secondary school years in the 1990s that a catchy Pizza Hut jingle alerted me to the existence of food delivery.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, university mates introduced new mainstays of any social gathering or late-night mugging session: Pizza and fast food you could order through a tele-operator - you just needed to have the flyers handy.
However, if you wanted hawker fare or international cuisines sent to your residence, you still had to manually search for F&B outlets that had their own delivery arm. Unfortunately, there weren’t many.
The state of the food delivery landscape remained as such until the 2010s when the gig economy started to take off and brought us operators such as foodpanda, Deliveroo, GrabFood and UberEats.
However, using these apps in their early years was not as smooth an experience as it is today. For starters, you needed reservoirs of patience to put up with technical glitches.
You had to be content with the limited choice of vendors, and you might have to accept less than stellar customer service in relation to considerably steep service fees. Back then, food delivery culture was still more novelty than normality.
COVID-19 CHANGED THINGS
Since the circuit breaker in April 2020, the appetite for food delivery services has burgeoned. Major players have been incentivised to up their game to keep up with growing competition.
For instance, according to a survey conducted by the National University of Singapore, there was a 73 per cent increase in delivered meals during the circuit breaker alone.
Food vendors too are increasingly joining these platforms to gain access to a customer base that has largely gone digital.
These developments are a win-win for consumers like me who are now reaping the benefits of vastly improved app technology, and the greater diversity of food choices and price points.
Come to think of it, I went from being someone who ordered takeout several times a year to that person whose workdays are now marked by the arrival of the food delivery guy at midday.
Like many of us, due to the risks of the pandemic, I limited going out as much as before and so ended up ordering more meals in.
The convenience of it soon grew on me and before I knew it, I was a regular on my food delivery app with my favourite list of food outlets memorised.
FOOD DELIVERY FEVER
But it wasn’t just me. The infectiousness of this convenient consumption spread to the rest of the household too.
On weekends, my children used to ask, “Where are we going for lunch/dinner?”. Now their question is, “What are we ordering?” Instead of some microwaved popcorn and homemade guacamole to go along with the nacho dips, late night snacking for my husband and me now involved popiah and barbecued ribs from our favourite eateries.
While I welcome the latest innovations in the food delivery space, it is hard not to notice the opportunity costs of ordering in all the time.
The convenience of ordering food in, and therefore not having to get ready to head out, has given rise to a wider inertia. Days and weeks tend to go by in a blur without the situational reference of having meals with family or colleagues at certain establishments.
Years from now, I cannot look at my camera roll for a visual reminder about the roti prata breakfast I had with my sister at a famous stall in my neighbourhood, much less recall anything we chatted about. Of course, that is completely my own doing.
MEMORIES OF DISPOSABLE CONTAINERS
Another example: Before the pandemic gave rise to virtual worship services, my husband and I would take the kids out for a meal every Sunday after attending mass in church.
Even without referring to photos, I remember specific occasions based on the restaurants we ate at as the multi-sensory memory of those places remain etched in my mind: Observations about unique interior décor, the quirky waiter, people at a neighbouring table who talked too loudly, and so on.
READ: Commentary: The gig economy – a surprise boost from the pandemic and in Singapore, it’s not going anywhere
The meals were also telling of different periods in our family life, reflecting how our tastes and preferences evolved over time. The lesser we dine out, the more difficult it is to recognise the differences - as we may find out in years to come as we pour through family albums and find that much of last year and 2021 were spent at home eating out of disposable containers.
No matter how convenient or delicious a delivered meal they are usually better enjoyed with Netflix. For many families like mine, the focal point of a living room gravitates towards what’s on television and that includes mealtimes as well.
MISSING FAMILY CONVERSATIONS
Moreover, with everyone doing their own thing at home, it is hard to get them to sit down and have a meal all at the same time.
Family bonding of a deeper kind thus would have to wait for that special occasion when we ate at actual restaurants, where there isn’t a television to distract and mobile devices are kept away.
When we are all seated around a table at a restaurant with little or no distractions, conversations will happen (even if they are forced).
Moreover, the comfort and convenience of food delivery services has not been forgiving on the waistline.
Certainly, the complacency of working in sweatpants and the ease of satisfying food cravings at the touch of a button instead of having to walk to some place to eat can explain the staggering 5kg to 6kg my husband and I have gained since the circuit breaker.
This sobering wake-up call was what triggered our cutting down on delivered meals and starting a daily ritual of two-hour-long morning walks, which - apart from being energising - turned out to be educational as well.
As we passed various food centres and coffeeshops, we were able to put a face to the many individual vendors from the food delivery apps. These apps have helped such stalls, many of which are non-descript, reach out to customers like me. Otherwise, we might not have come to know of their delicious offerings.
STRIKING THE RIGHT BALANCE
On the one hand technology has helped such small business owners explore new income streams. On the other hand, learning who they were and their stories through our walks meant that they were more than just digital integers we clicked on so effortlessly.
Perhaps that is the kind of balance we need in our lives whenever new innovations or technology emerge to make our lives easier – to not let it dictate our lifestyles, but to incorporate it to improve the lives of others and our own. That approach is key when it comes to making food ordering decisions as well.
If there’s anything that my once over-reliance on food delivery has taught me, it’s not to prize convenience and comfort above all else.
Instead, making space for occasions to take the family to restaurants, to put actual faces to my favourite in-app hawkers, and to generally eat in the company of people instead of devices can be immensely rewarding.
Food delivery apps are here to stay so we better learn how to live with them and not through them.
Rachel Tey is an author and editorial consultant based in Singapore.