The contrast, in my burger-starved boyhood, between our apartment and the bright lights of Burger King was so stark it was almost cruel. If only Burger King had delivered back then! The chain’s home-delivery experiment, which has been expanding very slowly — first in a few mid-Atlantic states and most recently in southern Florida — is the first by any major restaurant chain that doesn’t have the word “pizza” in its name. There are big logistical issues to work out. But Burger King, which charges a small delivery fee, claims that proprietary new technology will keep the burgers hot and the fries crispy en route. The company has been quietly rolling out the program to make sure it can fulfill the immense demand its delivery service will no doubt unleash.
The challenge is very similar to the one all chains faced when they started doing drive-through, which was another decisive advance in delivering fast food into the main arteries of American culture. Delivery is much harder than it sounds, though. A fast-food kitchen is usually pressed to capacity between in-house customers and drive-through customers; to add delivery customers, and the manpower to take care of them, won’t be easy, especially for a chain that just took a crippling blow. Burger King’s profits are down a whopping 83% this quarter; it has already suffered the indignity of losing its number-two status to Wendy’s. Delivery might be Burger King’s last best hope before going the way of Burger Chef.
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But whether or not Burger King manages to avoid going down to flame-broiled doom, there’s no doubt that fast-food delivery will happen. It just makes too much sense, for the chain and the consumer, for it not to happen. Which is not to say it’s a good thing.
Quick service restaurants, as fast food is known in the restaurant business, was for most of its history a kind of luxury good. The food was always hideous and the service robotic at best, but it was — and to some extent still is — portrayed as a respite from dreary routine (“You deserve a break today”) or a special outing (“Head for the border”; “Buy a bucket of chicken and have a barrel of fun”). Whenever faced with criticism for their gruesomely unhealthy foods, the chains had frequent recourse to the argument that their food, while certainly not wholesome, was meant as a treat rather than as a staple.
But here’s the thing. It is a staple item of American life. Fifty million Americans eat fast food on any given day. According to the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans eat fast food at least once a week; for 18- to 29-year-olds, the statistic jumped to 59%. And bear in mind that those figures represent the U.S. population as a whole. For lower-income Americans, and single-parent households, the numbers are probably much, much higher. When fast-food delivery kicks in on a big scale, as it certainly will, those numbers are likely to go up even more. People can’t live on pizza alone.
(MORE: What Happened to the American Middle-Class Meal?)
Pizza became a delivery success for two reasons. One was that it travels well. The other was that it was cheap. The first part is a technical issue; and the second isn’t as true as it once was: a big Domino’s specialty pie is almost $20. A family dinner at Burger King may cost more, but not much more. That’s because Burger King, like all fast-food operations, operates on huge economies of scale, which is what our food system is now all about. The old structures of that system are also disintegrating. It used to be, not too long ago, that you would go to one place — a supermarket — to buy food, and another place to buy clothes and another place to buy sporting goods. Now you can go to Walmart to buy all of those things. (Even drug stores like CVS are frequently loaded with beverage cases and canned food aisles.) The bleeding of restaurant food into home food, which is in a way the final stage in this general dissolution of all formal barriers, comes now into view.
Which brings me back to my boyhood. The latest city Burger King is expanding delivery to is Miami, the company’s home base. I grew up two blocks from Burger King’s headquarters, a block from the Dadeland mall. I spent my entire childhood wailing for Whoppers, stuck unhappily in a dark apartment with only horrible stoneground wheat crackers and hard cheeses and grapefruit juice, as opposed to the paradise of bright lights and salty, greasy foods just a few inaccessible blocks away. (I was too young to make a break for it.) Had I been able to get Burger King delivered (or, as must also eventually happen, to get microwaveable Whoppers), my home life would have been one long happy trip to Burger King. Which would have meant no trip at all — and hardly any home.