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Delivery nation: What Americans want most from their food today

An increasingly common sight for busy families: food on demand at home. (Credit: iStock)

Delivery is so hot right now.

Just ask Taco Bell, which announced on Wednesday that it's bringing tacos, burritos, and other Mexican-inspired fare to the doorsteps of customers in some 200 locations around the United States. The fast food chain, which is extending the delivery option to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orange County, and Dallas at the moment, is the latest addition to an already long list of quick service giants that offer delivery—including Starbucks, Chipotle, McDonald's, and Dunkin' Donuts. And it underscores an increasingly apparent truth about what Americans want from their food.

Yes, people want the food they buy to be cheap, but there's actually something that matters more to people than price: convenience.

The delivery bug, after all, hasn't been exclusive to the fast food world. People have become conditioned to expect Amazon to deliver practically anything to them. Third party companies like Seamless and Postmates, which partner with food purveyors to deliver meals for a small fee, have come to define the lunch food scene in big cities by making all kinds of food available. And new, delivery-only restaurants, like Maple and Savory, are taking it a step further, doubling down on the notion that what people want, more than anything else, is convenience.

"It's very widespread," said Mary Chapman, who is a senior director of product innovation at restaurant market research firm Technomic. "And it touches tons of different price points."

A sign of the times

To say that delivery is something entirely new is to forget that pizza shops, like Dominoes and Pizza Hut, have been ringing doorbells for decades. So too have Chinese restaurants, Chapman reminds.

But there is something unique about the way in which the most convenient form of restaurant service is currently spreading. The reason it is becoming more prevalent isn't merely because people want it—many, it turns out, actually need it.

"The reality is that for many people today time is more valuable than dollars," said Chapman. "That's even true for people who don't have very many dollars. And, you know, that has a pretty sizable impact."

Families are working more than ever. More than 60 percent of households are now supported by two working parents, according to the latest government data, which is the highest reading on record.

At the moment, there is no minimum dollar amount required to order delivery from Taco Bell, but the service does come with a flat $3.99 fee. What that means is that anyone craving a hard shell taco, which runs just over $1, will have to pay five times the in-store price to have it handed to them at home. And you know what? Many people will.

The less time people have to sit down at restaurants, leave home to pick up dinner, or even cook at home, the more convenience hovers over decisions about food, especially when there is an option that only requires a brief interaction with a screen or over the phone with person. The advent of coffee pods, which have come to define how so much of this country ingests its caffeine, is a testament to the value of convenience today.

"Price is important because if you can’t afford it, you can’t buy it, but convenience is the one thing that’s really changing trends these days," Howard Telford, an industry analyst at market research firm Euromonitor.

The rise of delivery isn't, however, only a matter of necessity. Many people, as it happens, are simply willing to pay a premium to eat restaurant quality food without leaving the comforts of their home or nibble through a Gordita Crunch without getting up from the cushions of their couch.

"It's really a combination of the two things—convenience and laziness," said Chapman. "Jimmy John's, for instance, delivers an awful lot of sandwiches to college campuses. Is it because students are really busy, or because they don't feel like putting in more effort? I'd say both."

A win-win

What many people might not realize is that the ascent of delivery is something a lot of restaurants actually welcome with open arms. At establishments that are normally dinner-dependent, delivery—through services like Seamless or otherwise—helps boost lunchtime sales. At outlets like Chipotle, meanwhile, where sales drag at dinnertime, the opposite is true: delivery is something of a savior.

Allowing customers to order food from afar means upping volume, so long as the kitchen can handle the it, and the adjustment period isn't too problematic. But restaurants are eager to adapt. The maneuver, in fact, is so commonly discussed that there's even a catchy phrase insider's use to describe it: 'business beyond the queue.'

"You can only put so many people through your line of drive thru," said Chapman. "That's even truer for sit-down restaurants."

There's also the growing sense that customers tend to order more food when they don't have to order in person—especially when they do it online. People, perceiving less judgment, let go.

"They have the same choices as before, but they're removing the social transaction costs," Ryan McDevitt, an assistant professor at the University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business, who study ordering habits over a four year period, told the Wall Street Journal in 2012. "From my own personal experience, I feel more comfortable ordering something online than at the counter."

Chapman concurs. "Orders are higher when they're done online," she said. "It's something people in the industry know at this point."

None of this is to say that delivery doesn't present its fair share of challenges. In some cases, the boon after a restaurant introduces delivery ends up only being incremental. Customers who once ordered food and then picked it up might simply shift over to the even more convenient delivery option, especially if it comes without an added price. 

There are also those establishments that refuse to risk their reputation by putting it in the hands of a third party, like Seamless, which might take too long to deliver the food or fail to to deliver it entirely.

But there's little reason to believe the future won't be even more inundated with delivery options than it is today.

The future is looking convenient

"We definitely see delivery growing," said Chapman. "As an operator, you have to figure out whether it makes sense for your particular business, but I think more and more places will come around."

For fast food companies, like Taco Bell, it's a no-brainer. Especially now, at a time when Americans are slowly but surely migrating away from commercially produced, processed foods, and toward fresher alternatives. McDonald's, which has suffered mightily lately, is no doubt hoping that bringing Big Macs to customers will prove more successful than convincing them to walk through the burger giant's doors.

For other pricier eateries, it might simply be a matter of time. Many high end restaurants, which once balked at the notion of allowing customers to eat their food without sitting down and being served, have since reconsidered. The challenge to maintain the quality is real, but there is a new imperative to accommodate customers in this way.

"In some cases, chefs taste-test to-go dishes straight out of their takeout containers, so they can monitor what a dish tastes like after it leaves the controlled environment of a kitchen," the Wall Street Journal wrote last fall

Then there's perhaps the most telling sign: Delivery is what the kids are doing these days. About 15 percent of all restaurant meals eaten in the United States are delivered, according to data from Technomic. But among Millennials it's closer to 20 percent.