Is convenience saving or killing the pizzeria experience?
It wasn’t long ago that home food delivery was a novelty. Even though Chinese food and pizza delivery both landed in the first half of the 20th century, neither really took off until after WWII. After just a couple decades, home food delivery became the standard with pizza as its poster child. Now you can get just about anything delivered to your door within minutes, from a dozen chocolate chip cookies to a cup of coffee. Some say it’s bliss, but I’m worried about what we’re losing as restaurants give into the growing convenience culture.
Every pizzeria has had to confront the double-edged nature of third-party delivery services. If a pizzeria is willing to pay the high commissions and customers are willing to pay premiums, the relationship works. The true problem is that your pizzeria isn’t just losing control over the last mile of the transaction process, you’re also losing your identity. No longer is the customer yours, they now belong to the delivery service. Customers no longer order from Joey’s Original Pizza, they order from Brand X Restaurant Aggregator, Inc. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “I just want to go home and order Seamless.” Your small business is cut from the equation, treating you merely as a kitchen.
I’m starting to see new concept companies that partner with independent restaurants to reproduce their food at scale in a network of ghost kitchens. It’s an interesting model that capitalizes on consumers’ desire for convenience. But what happens when the ghost kitchen version competes in the same neighborhood as the original version? Could the licensee put the licensor out of business? It’s entirely possible.
One of my favorite pizzerias in New York City is Totonno’s Pizzeria Napoletano on Coney Island. They shut their doors in March 2020 and only reopened earlier this year. This is a classic pizzeria that’s been around since the 1920s with a rare coal-burning oven driving the business. People used to queue down the block hoping for a chance to score one of the day’s limited pizzas. When they reopened after nearly three years, the business model was completely reborn. Totonno’s no longer has dine-in service; they do only takeout and delivery. It’s admirable that they’ve figured out a way to keep the business alive, but a piece of me is disappointed that customers will no longer be able to experience the dine-in service of one of NYC’s classic pizza parlors. Is convenience the savior or the killer?
The trick for the pizzeria is to provide the ease of use without losing identity. It’s clear that consumers love convenience. We like quick and easy ordering through apps that already have our credit cards locked and loaded. I just hope we can stop ourselves from ending up in a future where great food is just something that arrives on your table with the push of a button, entirely devoid of the passion and heart that went into its production.