Many restaurants survived the past year’s shutdown by offering curbside pickup as well as delivery by outside services. Neither takeout nor delivery is a new idea. Both stretch back into at least the 18th century when French-influenced “restorators” in cities offered a range of ready-to-eat food to be picked up or delivered to homes.
Deliveries included soups – a specialty of restorators – oysters, and full meals. A typical newspaper notice would closely resemble that of J. B. LeRebour of Salem MA in 1800, offering “all the delicacies that the season and market can afford . . . dressed for the epicure . . . Families in town may be supplied with Dinners and Suppers at the shortest notice.”
Notices in 1815 and 1816 from the versatile New York restaurateur, pastry cook, and confectioner Mrs. Poppleton give an idea of the kind of food that epicurean families might order. They included: Almond Soup; Savory Patties; Lobster Puddings; Chicken, Eel, and Game Pies; Anchovey Toasts; Omelettes; Italian Sallads; and Cold and Ornamented Hams, Tongues, and Fowls; as well as Savory Cakes and Pies.
Mrs. Poppelton also provided ladies with party trays. Clearly the notion of restaurant-ing then was closely tied to that of catering.
With the decline and disappearance of the French-influenced restorators by the 1840s, it seems as though home delivery pretty much dried up for a while.
Toward the end of the 19th century, some women interested in reducing household drudgery began to dream of a future when cooked food would be delivered to homes. Writer and thinker Helen Starrett, author of After College – What?, predicted in 1889 that cooking would one day leave the home just as had soap and butter making. She believed that meal delivery would succeed as a business “because capital will find it profitable.”
It wasn’t always profitable, though. Perhaps Starrett was unaware of the startling collapse in 1884 of one of the earliest for-profit ventures, The New-York Catering Company. Despite a strong beginning, with $100,000 capital and floods of orders from families, it failed due to poor management and the disappearance of subscribers during summer when they left town for the countryside.
The fate of other early companies is mixed. In 1890 the Boston Catering Company delivered not only dinner but also lunch and breakfast. Founded by Thomas D. Cook, it was carried on by son Walter. It fared better than The 20th Century Food Co. of New Haven CT, which lasted little more than a year. Its menus offered a range of choices in 1900, such as Breaded Lamb Chops, Beef Stew and Dumplings, and Corned Beef Hash.
Despite failures aplenty, interest in home delivery of ready-to-eat meals did not disappear, and grew even stronger in the early 20th century propelled by the “servant shortage.” Co-operative projects, such as the Women’s Industrial and Educational Union in Boston and the Central Co-operative Kitchen in Minnesota’s Twin Cities tried to take up the slack. And a number of women around the country began to run small enterprises out of their home kitchens, hiring boys on bicycles to deliver within relatively short distances.
Profit-making restaurant-based food delivery grew stronger at the same time. Examples include the Laboratory Kitchen of Boston, which retained a strong flavor of the co-operative movement. But other restaurants were purely business. For them, delivery was encouraged by the number of people able to order via telephone. Two New York tea rooms, The Colonia and The Fernery, delivered to businessmen who called in orders from their offices.
It wasn’t long before Chinese restaurants were taking delivery orders by telephone. And in the 1930s, fried chicken became a popular restaurant specialty for delivery. An interesting development was the opening of the first unit of the fried chicken delivery chain Flying Chicken in Albuquerque in 1946. Like the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain established in 1952, it did not provide any dining facilities. It advertised with slogans such as “Prepare Dinner with One Finger – Use Your Phone, Not Your Stove.”
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of home delivery remained strong, increasingly focused on relatively limited menus, such as pizza, barbecue, or chicken, rather than full dinners or choices of many entrees. Still, here and there someone would start up full-service meal delivery with more ambitious selections and higher prices. For example, the Casserole Kitchen in New York City, begun in 1951 by a continentally trained chef, offered about 10 entrees each day. A sample dinner was Green Turtle Soup, Ham Imperial, Brussels Sprouts, Salad, and Vienna Chocolate Cake.
It wasn’t influential – and certainly not typical – but it’s impossible not to mention a phenomenon of the 1960s, San Francisco’s Magnolia Thunderpussy. Named for its proprietor, it was an eating place in Haight-Ashbury whose x-rated menu featured suggestively-named ice cream desserts and basic grub like stew (Mouthpiece Menage), and chili. Deliveries continued until 4 a.m., often handled by Magnolia herself.
Today’s “ghost kitchen” concept – restaurant-less kitchens used only to prepare food for delivery — obviously isn’t new at all, going back to businesses such as the New York Catering Company of the 1880s. The arrangement remained strong in the 1950s and 1960s, even continuing into the 1980s. Examples include Phone-A-Feast (Peoria IL); The Orbit (Jersey City NJ); Mr. Dinner (Columbus OH); and Bring Me My Dinner (Stamford CT). General Mills, however, did not succeed with its trials of the concept: Order Inn was shut down in 1988 after one year, while the next experiment, Bringers, ended in 1992 after a two-year trial in Minneapolis.
Another delivery concept — such as Uber Eats or Grubhub that bring orders from any number of restaurants — isn’t new either. Messenger services, such as the Boys With the Red Sweaters (Bakersfield CA, 1910), provided early meal delivery for Chinese restaurants. In the early 1990s Las Vegans were served by Entrees on Trays, which handled deliveries from 20 restaurants.
Apart from pizza and Chinese food, it’s my sense that there were fewer restaurants and kitchens that delivered food to homes (and offices) in the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps because that was a time when going out to eat, often for entertainment as well as nourishment, became very popular with a wide swath of the population.
© Jan Whitaker, 2021