My first job was at my parents’ Chinese takeaway in my Welsh hometown. I was eight years old and I hated it. I stank of prawns and I had to stand on a plastic stool to reach the counter to be able to serve customers. Fast forward 15 years, I moved to London and eventually, after 30 years in business, we sold the shop. Looking back, growing up above a takeaway taught me so many life lessons and it helped shape my identity. Since living in the city, I find myself going to my local Chinese takeaway every other week to support it. The Chinese woman behind the counter sneaks in a bag of free prawn crackers with my order (shout out to Wendy at Wing Wah in Leytonstone).
The world of the takeaway has been a huge part of my life, so much so that I’ve written a book about my experience growing up above one in the rural Welsh valleys. Over the years, I’ve seen a change in people’s eating habits. Gone are the days when your options for takeout were limited to just pizza or fish and chips. Now, the choices are endless, from vegan chik’n to Nepalese curries and even Michelin-starred meals. In the not-so-distant past, takeaways operated on a cash-only basis, had no digital presence and handled food delivery directly. These days, an entire ecosystem of players is involved. There are takeaway-only dark kitchens, new technology by Slerp that gives restaurants the ability run their own online ordering systems, and alternative third-party delivery services like Dishpatch and Supper have sprung up to rival the likes of Deliveroo and UberEats, everything has gone digital.
Businesses have had to adapt – and quickly. This is something that Ellen Chew, director and owner of Malaysian spot Rasa Sayang learnt during the pandemic. The Soho restaurant was already set up to offer takeaways, but Chew says it had to swiftly get to grips with promoting the business on social media. ‘It was a challenge for us because it was new territory and we had to learn all the ins and outs of the takeaway business as we went along,’ she explains. ‘As a business, it’s about the ability to evolve fast enough so that we don’t lose any traction or strength as a restaurant. We didn’t want to disappoint our customers by shutting down completely and waiting for stability in very uncertain waters.’
The pandemic has caused a sea change in our attitude towards takeaways. Before, a takeaway might have been a weekend treat. Now, it’s socially acceptable to get your working-from-home lunch delivered. Ordering in became the new going out, and even now the chance to dine at restaurants has returned, our appetite for home deliveries and takeaways has continued to grow. Last year, Big Hospitality reported that the UK food delivery market skyrocketed due to the pandemic – in 2020 it was worth £11.4bn.
Without takeaways, immigrant families like mine wouldn’t have a chance to survive here
Another business owner who has felt the effects of this rapid change is chef-owner Sirichai Kularbwong, who runs long-standing Thai restaurant Singburi in Leytonstone. When the pandemic hit, the restaurant pivoted from being dine-in to only offering takeaway. After two years, he’s finally opened his dining room to guests again. ‘Doing takeaway is a different beast. Unlike dining in, where you can control the flow of service, takeaway is merciless in that demand has to be answered nearly instantaneously,’ says Kularbwong. ‘There were times it was difficult to keep orders on schedule. Some dishes had to be cooked on the spot, almost one at a time, not en masse. And then you have to deal with walk-ins which disrupt the flow of service.’
When you’re hungrily waiting for your chow mein to arrive, or tracking the Deliveroo guy to see where your pizza is at, it’s easy to forget the work that goes into getting your takeaway to you. And we should all be thinking locally and trying our best to support independent businesses wherever we can.
Chew is hopeful that Londoners have a new appreciation for independent businesses like hers. ‘I’ve always been competing with bigger boys and bigger restaurant chains. I think there is enough to go around for every kind of restaurant model, be it big or small,’ she explains. ‘Londoners are also becoming more curious and adventurous when it comes to dining, often looking for interesting options that independent restaurants offer.’
I hope we continue to support our local takeout spots. Without takeaways, immigrant families like mine wouldn’t have a chance to survive here. They’re the backbone of this city (and this country) and they’ve been an essential lifeline during the pandemic – staff have risked their own safety to make sure others are fed in times of need. Takeaways are so much more than just a place to get your Friday night pizza, kebab or curry from – they’re hubs, they’re communities and they’re a British institution.
That’s why, this week, we’re celebrating the humble takeaway. We’ll shine a light on the family-run food establishments that have been around for decades. We’ll share the local, independent spots that London’s top chefs really rate. We’ll chat to some of the capital’s kebab bossmen. And we’ll bring you heaps more tasty treats.
We hope you’re hungry for Time Out’s takeaways week.
‘Takeaway: Stories from a Childhood Behind the Counter’ by Angela Hui is out on Jul 21.
Here are the best takeaways you can get delivered in London.
Grab a slice of the action with the best pizza deliveries in London.