6 minute read - Jan 29, 2021

How food delivery has changed, what it was like 25 years ago vs now

How food delivery has changed and what it takes to win more online orders today.
Marshall Pierce
Enterprise Partnerships

Let’s take a trip back in time. It’s a Friday evening in 1996, and you’re in your suburban kitchen trying to figure out what to have for dinner. There’s not much in the fridge that captures your imagination or your taste buds, and you don’t feel like going out.

So, you open the drawer where you keep your take-out and delivery menus. It’s stuffed full with folded paper versions of menus, mostly from Asian restaurants and pizza places. Most of the menus are well-worn from use, and a few even have holes in them from where you cut out “first-time customer” delivery discount coupons which probably already expired sometime last year.

After consulting with your spouse and kids, you decide to order Chinese food. You reach for the phone on the kitchen wall and shout over the sounds of a busy kitchen and fight to get your order right. You get an unreliable estimate of when the food will arrive, and a young man arrives at your door 30 minutes late with brown paper bags filled with small white cartons that (hopefully) contain what you ordered correctly.

Glancing at the total, you add a couple of dollars to the amount and hand the cash to the young man. “You can keep the change, and thank you very much.” The experience isn’t great, but what can you expect from delivery?

So much of this once typical experience now seems completely antiquated by today’s standards. Delivery apps have transformed the way people order food, and customers now demand up to date menus, promos and coupons, live delivery time updates, and -- most important of all – they have so many more delivery options to choose from.

Fast forward to today and you can find local restaurants, scroll through high resolution menus, and place a highly customized order – all on your phone. Then you get live updates on your food’s delivery status from the restaurant receiving the order all the way until the food arrives at your door.

All this has helped turn the food delivery industry into one of the fastest growing sectors in the economy. Although food delivery apps were gaining momentum before the pandemic – especially in large urban areas – the shelter-in-place orders of 2020 boosted their growth almost overnight.

The four largest American food delivery companies – DoorDash, Uber, Grubhub, and Postmates -- made about $5.5 billion in combined revenue from April through September of 2020, more than double their combined revenue during the same period in 2019.

Graph courtesy of

Statista projects that online food delivery revenue will reach $182 billion worldwide by 2024. Compare that figure with $91 billion global industry in 2018.

Once COVID-19 is under control, will people still order food as often through their delivery apps? That answer remains to be seen. But what we do know is that the pandemic has turned the restaurant industry upside down, and countless eateries – from top-tier establishments on down to quick-service spots -- have had to rely on take-out and delivery to stay afloat. Many are struggling, and some have had to close their doors.

But what was food delivery like before this seismic shift? Let’s take a brief look at the history of restaurant delivery in the U.S.

Although some restaurants – especially hotels -- delivered meals upon request through the years, the modern food delivery system really began around the middle of the 20th century. Baby Boomers grew up enjoying conveniences like frozen “TV dinners” introduced by Swanson’s in 1954 and the microwave oven, which became popular in the 1960s.

Americans also were ready to try new foods. According to the 2016 article “What Take-Out Food Can Teach You About American History,” published by Time Magazine, American soldiers came home from serving in Europe with a new hunger for pizza. By 1944, New York City pizzerias were offering pizza packed in “special boxes for take-out.” A few years later, a Los Angeles pizza place offered free delivery with a $2.50 minimum order.

In addition to pizza, which still stands out as the most popular food delivery item today, Chinese food became a popular delivery option in the last century. As early as 1922, the Kin-Chu Café in Los Angeles claimed it would “deliver hot dishes direct to you,” even as late (or should we say as early?) as 1 a.m.

Big city restaurants that enjoyed a high volume of business were your best bet to get a home-delivered meal throughout much of the 20th century. Before the age of food delivery apps, those restaurants that offered delivery mostly used their own staff to make the meal drop-offs, and usually had limited delivery to certain hours and had inconsistent delivery times.

Early internet delivery experiments

Although the internet was still in its infancy in 1994, food delivery was one of the first things you could order online. The first known internet food delivery marketplace was PizzaNet, offered by a Santa Cruz, Calif. Pizza Hut subsidiary known as Santa Cruz Operation.

Apparently, some customers were suspicious of the idea of ordering food this new-fangled way, and some even thought the whole thing was a prank. Here’s a decidedly tongue-in-cheek description of the new PizzaNet service from a 1994  Los Angeles Times article called “On-Line Pizza Idea Is Clever but Only Half-Baked.”

“Hold the cheesiness! Apparently, the folks at Pizza Hut take these sorts of scenarios seriously. The nation’s largest pizza home delivery service has just launched its PizzaNet on line. Why phone or fax your order for a 14-inch extra-cheese, half-mushroom, half-pepperoni with onion-- hold the oregano! --pizza when you can order it virtually via the Internet? It’s the Geek Chic way to nosh.”

As it turns out, Pizza Hut was just a bit ahead of its time. By 1997, The New York Times interviewed two suburban professionals who believed “the Internet and on-line (sic) communication are here to stay, and both feel the computers are being increasingly used to make mundane tasks easier.” The article, headlined “With Help of a Web Site, Ordering Food Is as Quick as a Click,” describes in great detail the process of the couple ordering their Indian dinner via their desktop computer.

We all know that the advent of the mobile phone streamlined the food delivery landscape. Research by the NPD Group showed that digital restaurant orders have increased at an annual pace of 23 percent since 2013 and tripled in volume by the end of 2020. Of those online orders, 60 percent were made through mobile apps.

In addition to the top four services, other strong players have entered the food delivery marketplace scene. Here are some of the new contenders:

Professional photos make their mark

How can you make your mark in this increasingly competitive marketplace? Research shows that high-quality photography is taking center stage and makes all the difference when attracting customers online and getting more delivery orders.

Paper menus are a thing of the past. Today’s customers make their meal ordering decisions after scrolling through online menus, and the meal descriptions that catch their eye are the ones accompanied by mouth-watering professional photos. Data from delivery platforms show that high-quality food photos can increase orders for a restaurant by 35% or more.

Image courtesy of Shakeshack's Instagram

Maybe you think adding professional photos to your online menu is cost-prohibitive. Think again. Snappr offers a huge network of professional food photographers at a variety of price points. With Snappr, you can get professional-quality photos anywhere, on-demand, and often with as little as two hours’ notice.

Also, all Snappr photoshoots are professionally edited, ensuring stunning images that capture your menu items at their peak flavor and appearance.

Are you ready to make a real impact on your food delivery marketplace’s bottom line? Contact Snappr’s enterprise photography team today to learn how we can provide exceptional food photography at scale.

About the author

Marshall Pierce
Enterprise Partnerships

Marshall Pierce leads partnerships for enterprise Food clients at Snappr. He has helped dozens of major players in the industry with their content strategy. He is available for a no-obligation consultation about your Food photography needs.

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