Modern Food Delivery Was Forged In Battle.
150 hot meals an hour. 20 million meals nationwide. Delivered while navigating an active war zone. They called it a mobile canteen — belying its military status. It looks like any delivery truck you’ve ever seen.
But this was the first of its kind. The primordial pizza delivery. Amazon Prime prime. The big bang of modern culinary convenience, born of necessity, forged in battle
This was the first food delivery.
Of course, food has been delivered since ancient times — whether it be by horseback or on foot. But the modern idea of a coordinated system that allows a hot meal to be delivered via a midsize sedan to a specific address in as little time as possible has only been in the works for 80 years now.
This happened between 1940 and 1941. The world had once again engulfed itself in a war. The largest, most destructive conflict in all of human history by most measures. Despite the huge loss of life, we will have stumbled upon some pretty keen ideas along the way. Only some of them will give us the option of nuking ourselves into oblivion. Others will bestow upon us the indisputable miracle of pizza delivered in 30 minutes or less.
By this time, much of Western Europe had already fallen to the Nazi Blitzkrieg. Supply lines cut off and food rationed, Great Britain was pretty much alone. To make matters worse, the Luftwaffe were lobbing bombs at their capital.
The British Home Office had to figure out a way to feed its population while sustaining near constant aerial bombardment. Their answer was mass motorized food delivery.
The Ministry of Food took what little rations it had and manufactured it into hot meals on an industrial scale. Restaurants were set up across the country, serving meals three times a day every day. The UK government basically started its own fast food franchises.
But not everybody could hop on the train and get a bite to eat — especially if the station was being used as an air raid shelter. That food needed to be brought to where the people were, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
So under the cover of barrage balloons and anti-aircraft gun fire, a fleet of delivery vehicles descended upon London, opening up their own shipping lanes amidst the chaos of the largest attack Great Britain ever experienced.
Over the course of 8 months, the German Luftwaffe dropped about 45,000 short tons of explosives on London and its surrounding boroughs — more explosive yield than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs combined. Over 40,000 civilians died and over 2 million houses were destroyed. Almost two thirds of London was leveled, leaving much of the population homeless.
At times, the air raid sirens blared on a nightly basis. An army of volunteers from the Civil Defense Service rushed into the bombed areas to extinguish blazes and rescue survivors from the rubble.
These were the first customers of modern food delivery.
Just as it will be in the future, time was of the essence.
Nowadays, if a pizza place wants to deliver its pies to any substantially-sized metropolitan area without the pizza getting cold along the way, delivery areas have to be established, routes need to be optimized, and drivers need to be dispatched in an orderly and efficient manner.
The mobile canteens proved it was possible.
And they did it in blackout conditions.
Just as a pizza place can’t predict where their next order will come from, the mobile canteens had no idea when or where the next attack would be. So they arranged their delivery routes in concert with the trajectory of the bombs. When the German air command called in an air strike, in effect they were calling in an order to the mobile canteens — through their choice of targets. Port facilities, rail lines, munitions factories, residential neighborhoods and the occasional cathedral or prep school were all on the menu. This meant the mobile canteens had to be ready to mobilize at all times, on a moment’s notice. Just like an all-night pizzeria during finals week today — except with less civilian casualties.
The truth is that the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign wasn’t so much about gaining air superiority or crippling Britain’s industrial capacity as it was about breaking the country’s will to fight. Keeping the population fed meant keeping the war effort going and nothing maintains morale like a full stomach.
In a very real sense, fast, efficient food delivery was one of the things keeping Britain from surrendering to the Nazis.
In a few short years, the Third Reich would be vanquished and the war would be over.
But food delivery would be triumphant.
American fast food franchises took the concept and ran with it. Food delivery drivers stormed the cities and their nascent suburbs. A newly-minted interstate highway system unleashed food delivery upon the entire country.
In a time of microwaves, TV dinners, Lay-Z-Boys, and an ever escalating desire for instant gratification, food delivery was repurposed as the ultimate consumer convenience — all evidence of its origins as a wartime necessity nearly forgotten.
We are again under attack from an enemy in the air. A virus has overthrown the natural order, separating family and friends, and upending almost all aspects of our daily lives — including in-restaurant dining.
Nevertheless, the virus can take our restaurants.
But it will never take our delivery.
And so a tireless fleet of Sprinter vans, mail trucks, and a dizzying array of midsize sedans head to the frontlines. Our supply chain and our safety — as well as our pizza — rest in their capable hands. Once the unsung saviors of academic all-nighters and harried homemakers alike, they are now part of the vanguard against this virus. Yeah, they might not carry a badge or hold a medical degree but they keep us fed. They keep us healthy. Most importantly, they keep us at home.
We have taken food delivery for granted for so long it’s easy to forget that lives can be saved simply because someone has something delivered.
That’s because in times of crisis, food delivery was made-to-order.