The remarkable growth of food delivery apps

A growing number of apps offer a simple ordering interface, but reduce your ability to deviate from the menu
With cash-strapped consumers feeling the pinch, companies that compete for spare cash in SA have their work cut out for them.

Yet fast food is one of the sectors that has shown resilience despite this challenge.

And like all industries, tech interventions (including apps) are the latest tool for squeezing out any competitive advantage in a crowded space.

UberEats marked its first birthday in SA in September 2017, and is now operating in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, Stellenbosch, and — as of late last month — Durban. It’s a remarkable growth story for a service that began in just a few select areas of Johannesburg.

Nic Robertson, GM for UberEats Middle East & Africa, says the service has expanded to "eight times [its] initial size", and has partnered with more than 1,200 restaurants, including 700 brands offering 69 different cuisine types.

At virtually the same time as that first UberEats launch, several competitor apps rushed onto the market. Consumers in SA’s major cities can now choose between several app-based food delivery services (depending on location), and even a specialised alcohol delivery service in some areas.

Local delivery company Mr D Food (previously Mr Delivery) is the other dominant player.

Though it launched later, Mr D Food’s app benefited from an established and country-wide network (1,900 suburbs) and its own delivery workforce (whereas UberEats uses independent delivery vehicles in line with the original Uber model).

The two continue to jostle for dominance. UberEats has been downloaded over 550,000 times, Robertson says, while Mr D Food’s website boasts "375,126 happy customers".

In the local iStore app rankings, Mr D Food is second in food & drink, while UberEats ranks first in the category. In the Google Play Store, the top four apps in the category are Debonairs, UberEats, McDelivery (McDonald’s delivery app) and Mr D Food.

OrderIn — another restaurant-partner network delivery app — sits at eight in the iStore and 11 on Google Play, but CEO Dinesh Patel told Wired to the Web earlier this year that it had grown 400% in the year. Ventureburn late last year reported that Bottles — an app-based alcohol delivery service — is growing at a rate of 50%-100% month-on-month. It now operates in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban.

It’s not just delivery operators that are reaping the benefits. Services like these support the viability of virtual restaurants, including a handful of success stories locally.

These are food businesses operating without any form of real-world storefront, and often out of people’s homes. Poké Co and Lele’s African Cuisine are two examples of businesses that have grown out of UberEats and still earn a significant portion of their revenue through the app — as much as 70% in the case of Lele’s, according to Robertson.

For consumers, these apps offer a simple ordering interface that removes the potential for misunderstanding. They do, however, restrict your ability to customise your order, keeping you largely to a set menu — a feature restaurateurs no doubt welcome.

Most, however, do offer the ability to include special instructions or remove certain ingredients.

The option to track the movement of your lunch or receive estimated delivery times is another bonus that greatly improves the ordering experience.

All of the apps mentioned above are available for free download (excluding the cost of data for download) for both iOS and Android devices, though their operating footprints vary.