The hospitality sector, which represents 10 per cent of the workforce, is on its knees. Delivery meal kits are proving to be a lifeline for some businesses, but are they enough? Sophie Morris digs in

Every time Tommy Banks designs a new meal for his delivery business Made in Oldstead, he packs it up as if ready for a courier, drops it from a good height, watches it hit the floor and kicks it across the room. If any of the dishes inside are damaged from the kickabout, it’s back to the planning stages.

Banks won a Michelin star last week for his York restaurant, Roots, and maintained his star at The Black Swan in Oldstead, but the future of “eating in” - from fine dining to chippies and caffs - is one of the great unknowns of the pandemic. Restaurants have been either closed or adapting to new hygiene regulations for the past 10 months.

Britain’s hospitality sector employs 3.2 million people, or 10 per cent of the workforce. That’s 6 per cent of businesses and 5 per cent of GDP, according to the trade association UK Hospitality. Many high street chains, including Byron and Pizza Express, have already announced closures. Hospitality job losses more than doubled in 2020 compared with 2019 and branch closures rose by 76 per cent, says the Centre for Retail Research.

But the delivery market - an audience tried and tested by apps such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats and recipebox businesses such as Gousto and HelloFresh - is thriving.

Banks got in on this early and began delivering meals locally in April. By June he was sending boxes nationwide. He now employs 30 fulltime staff on the delivery business alone. I’m afraid that his six-course, £140 Valentine’s menu is already sold out. But you can order a three-course meal of upmarket but hearty dishes from £50, all made with the same produce, much of it home-grown, as well as beautiful bottled cocktails.

Banks is an entrepreneurial chef.

But a successful side hustle in delivery demands much more than filling doggy bags. “You can’t realistically represent a 14-course tasting menu at home,” he says. “That’s why we set up another company to do restaurant food that’s much better than anyone can be bothered to cook at home.

“I get messages from other chefs on a daily basis asking how they can get into it. I don’t want to be a killjoy, but it’s a massive challenge. You can’t do it overnight. We did everything from designing bespoke packaging to taking orders, and made huge investments in kit. It’s not a small undertaking, but if we hadn’t done it I’d be very worried about our survival.”

My husband and I often say we should chat over dinner, but in this strange new world he’ll usually work and I’ll watch television. The Made In Oldstead box is a diversion from these poor habits. It arrives in perfect condition and takes minutes to get on the plate.

Creamy mackerel paté is balanced with the tang of fennel and apple. The salt beef pie is a glorious indulgence. Apple cake comes with caramel and a very generous pot of clotted cream, transporting me to a time when pudding meant more than a handful of Quality Street.

Delivery demographics I live in a small town with great restaurants but without the choice found in a bigger town or city, so it’s no surprise to find I’m a core customer for meal-delivery kits. Everyone I speak to tells me that parents who used to have a social life are especially keen for a posh takeaway. Securing certain limited-edition boxes has become a middle-class game - like getting a sought-after restaurant reservation. I have plenty of friends who love Gousto, which sends out pre-portioned recipe boxes to save you the hassle of shopping or chopping, and can see how they do a great job in chivvying reluctant or inexperienced cooks into the kitchen with an endless stream of easy meals.

These companies were growing before Covid-19 and now they’re flying. Gousto, a British company founded in 2012, has lockdown fitness hero Joe Wicks as an investor. It says capacity will triple by 2022, crediting the “structural shift to online grocery”. HelloFresh, a Berlinbased public company, more than doubled its revenue in 2020 and is planning to put on another 20 to 25 per cent in the coming year.

In these advanced stages of doing our own cooking (and the washing up) every night, despite owning more than 100 cookbooks, I am desperate for variety but short on time. I will continue to order to collect from restaurants, but now that so many places deliver nationwide, my choices feel limitless. I’m lucky I can splash out from time to time and slurp ramen from beloved Shoryu Ramen at the Japan Centre, a restorative meal you can keep in the freezer (from £20 for two). Five hundred of these are sent around the country each week.

Even small family restaurants, such as cult Sri Lankan spot Kolamba, are in on the act, and send out more than 200 meals each week. I miss travel as much as food, and a rich chicken rice dish from the Spanish restaurant Ibérica gives me licence to dream I’m on the overnight ferry to Santander. The menu, £66 for two, is described as “comfort food” from three Michelin-starred chef Nacho Manzano, and the jamón ibérico, truffle croquetas and rice pudding are indeed comforting, if comfort is gold-plated and travels first class.

Plenty of restaurants don’t have the funds to set up big delivery operations, but are sending out meals themselves (via couriers) or signing up to a growing number of start-ups that manage logistics such as Dishpatch, Restokit, Big Night (London only) and Finish and Feast.

Husband-and-wife team Mohammad Paknejad and Marwa Alkhalaf own Nutshell in Covent Garden, a contemporary Iranian restaurant that the critics loved when it opened in summer 2019. Alkhalaf misses seeing customers enjoying her food but deliveries are currently their only source of revenue; Westminster Council has told them it doesn’t have the funds to pay out the £3,000 government grant they are entitled to. Getting to this stage hasn’t been easy. “Our offerings at Nutshell were not delivery friendly,” says Paknejad. “The food is too delicate. We’ve had to modify our dishes and the way they are served.”

My feast box for two - £80 for three meze dishes, a lamb main and pistachio tart dessert - is a slim cardboard packet that turns out to be far more than the sum of its parts. There are 25 individually packed elements to each box and three pages of instructions. It looks fiddly and I sigh. I’ve been watching restaurant fans share their “at home” plating skills with pride on social media. Without the cocoon of plush restaurant decor, the uplift of congenial chatter and cocktail lists, can I summon the enthusiasm for this level of dining? And is it worth the money?

Plating up I gaze at the many tiny packets. One holds a spear of endive. Another, a few golden raisins. Waste is a byproduct of the delivery business, but don’t forget there’s plenty of waste in restaurants, too, but it’s hidden from you. Restaurants are working hard to find sustainable solutions and most of the plastic pots and vacuum packs are recyclable, while trays, boxes and insulation may be compostable.

I conjure up an image of Mohammad and Marwa preparing this food with the same care and expertise as on a busy evening at Nutshell, possibly more given they’re playing to a new audience. The “Mexican in Tehran” dried lime Margarita helps.

This is the rub with restaurantmeal deliveries. They don’t provide the social salve you get from going out for dinner with family and friends. Unboxing is fun, but doesn’t replace the thrill of a new menu.

Yet ordering in is one way you can contribute to keeping our hospitality industry alive. And there is social potential: people are ordering from the same place and eating with friends over Zoom. It’s a thriving revenue stream for some and a stopgap for others, but it is also diverting customers away from restaurants. Nobody yet knows if they’ll return.

Nick Gilkinson had scarcely opened Townsend in London’s Whitechapel Gallery last spring before it closed. He quickly launched Town-send to cover costs but was lucky to send out 15 meals each week. He stuck with it and before Christmas took on a new unit to fulfil huge corporate orders. Well-known chefs like the Galvin brothers and Simon Rogan are easily sending out more than 1,000 boxes each week, with instruction videos, playlists and wine pairings. Londoners can heat up three-starred feasts from Hélène Darroze or Clare Smyth.

Despite my hesitance at the work involved, the Nutshell box is a delicious success. The cooking instructions are detailed but not complicated. I plate up the meze in a few minutes, heating up crispy, oily bread, drizzling olive tapenade with pomegranate molasses, swirling golden beetroot purée on top of whipped feta. The lamb asks only for a quick sear, a sit in the oven, then à table in a puddle of vibrant apricot sauce.

We’ve all waited in for the courier who never shows, though lockdown has brought new respect for these critical workers. The drama ramps up when you’re expecting a special and costly meal. Before Christmas, Paknejad ended up driving some meals to Birmingham himself so as not to disappoint customers. Dishpatch was so busy packing up meals for its first orders last year that it missed its courier deadline. Instead of disappointing customers, cofounder Pete Butler rented five vans and had staff drive from London as far as Manchester and Liverpool. As a result, they met many grateful diners who continue to order today.

Dishpatch has a rotating menu of meals that under usual circumstances you’d be joining a pavement queue to access and sends out 2,000 boxes a week from 16 restaurants including Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese. Butler says that diversity is important, hence pitching big names such as Hartnett and Ottolenghi next to young restaurants such as the West African Chisuru. He has a team of six soon rising to eight, and this week moves into a new “fulfilment” kitchen, one of the “ghost kitchens”that cater to restaurant deliveries but don’t need to be at the site of the actual restaurant.

“We see the value we’re bringing to restaurants when they’re not able to open,” Butler says. “Hot food delivery is a zero-sum game because it’s delivered to people who live less than two miles away, who should be eating in the restaurant. Our average customer lives 77 miles from the restaurant. It’s a completely new revenue stream. Even when restaurants can open they can prep when it’s quieter.”

When lockdown first hit, Xavi Molet ran a creative agency and the idea for delivery platform Restokit came from brainstorming ways to support his hospitality clients. It has Peruvian, Portuguese, Spanish and Sri Lankan on its books. “There are other marketplaces that provide food,” he tells me from Spain, where he’s launching soon. “We want to give the customer the confidence to try something they’ve never tried before.”

The potential for trying new cuisines cooked by actual chefs is exciting, pushing at the boundaries of lockdown proscription, but if you have a favourite local joint, ask what they offer before ordering online.

“Unfortunately, ‘all of this’ won’t be over for a couple of years,” says James Lowe, the chef and co-founder of Lyles, Flor and Asap Pizza, who has explored a number of delivery options over the past year. When he is able to reopen his bricks-and-mortar restaurants, he says he’ll need to factor in the wellbeing of his staff.

“All those people will need time off as they’ve probably all just experienced the most difficult year of their lives.” For him, like many other restaurateurs, this move into retail is here to stay. It’s too early to say what this means for dining out, but it’s radical new territory for dining in.

Three of the best boxes PARSI BIRYANI BY FAROKH TALATI, £45, DISHPATCH Talati’s day job is at nose-to-tail restaurant St John, but he can show his Parsi roots with this delivery kit, which is satisfying but marked with delicate flavours. I feel like I’m in on an exclusive supper club in my own kitchen. Includes a huge dish of chicken in a spiced yoghurt marinade, with beef kebabs and mango pudding (may vary week to week).

LYLES GOOSE BOX, £140 Not cheap but this gave my family the most pleasure. Like many restaurants, Lyles is making a point of supporting suppliers through its delivery trade and a goose dinner seems just the indulgence 2021 demands. You need to read and follow the instructions for the mussels in cider and scallops with artichokes, but it’s interesting to learn some cheffy skills.

LIBERTINE BURGER, FROM £25 FOR A FOUR-BURGER KIT Has anyone honestly ever had a decent burger delivered hot? Libertine Burger in Warwickshire was 2020’s National Burger Award winner. Its kits offer an oozing at-home burger-bar experience, with 100 per cent Aberdeenshire cattle patties, American cheese slices, mustard, smoky bacon, lettuce and pickles.