In the dim and distant past of my childhood, once a week a bell could be heard ringing at around 6pm at the end of my parent’s road, which was the signal to head out with dinner plates in hand as the Pie & Peas man with his food van had arrived. With his no-choice menu of freshly made meat pies and perfectly mushy peas, as well as a zero packaging operation, I’ve often wondered whether just such a mobile business model would stack up in today’s more complex, but increasingly environmentally aware, marketplace.  

We continue to have ice cream vans bringing their confections to road-ends and parks while mobile libraries just about remain a feature in some rural areas, Amazon has been rolling out its Treasure Trucks to a growing number of locations within the UK, and in the US the supermarket chain Kroger has been testing its Zero Hunger Mobile Market truck that aims to take fresh food to people who can’t easily get to a store for various reasons including disabilities and a lack of transportation.

Kroger: Bringing the food to the people

There are also examples of mobile pizza vans and fish & chip vans appearing for specified periods on certain evenings at caravan sites to give holidaymakers a convenient dinner option that takes parents away from cooking duty on those evenings. These vans effectively mirror the food trucks that are cropping up in the growing number of food markets, but the difference is they are providing a genuinely mobile proposition rather than being largely static for the day.

We all know that delivering to the home – or other convenient location – has grown massively in importance over recent years with the likes of Deliveroo and Just Eat delivering food orders to people, but could there be a role for a slightly less personal, but more shared-service, proposition that is more environmentally friendly just like the Pie & Peas mobile service of my childhood.

It certainly has the advantage of freshness, the avoidance of food being damaged in transit, the potential to limit packaging, and also reduce fuel by taking mass servings out to groups of people rather than individuals. This all sounds laudable but would it be economically feasible today when people can have things delivered right to their door? Probably not if it was a simple clone of the old model – but what has moved things on today is the ability to incorporate technology into the proposition. 

There is the ability for people to track, via geo-location technology using their mobile devices, the location of the food vans/trucks as they make their way through their various stops and to plan meal times accordingly. This has proven to be very beneficial in the US where certain food producers have gained extremely loyal followings and such technology provides the level of visibility customers need.

Undoubtedly the most advanced take on the food delivery van has been developed by San Francisco-based Zume. It’s ‘Forward Mobile Kitchen’ trucks had originally been designed for its own Zume Pizza brand but it has recently partnered with other brands including firstly &Pizza.

Robot and pizza coming your way from Zume

The wagons contain bespoke mobile kitchens that double as food trucks and delivery vehicles. One of the pioneering aspects is its use of automation whereby for pizza production it uses robots to create the pies and the cooking time can be synched to the length of the journey.

Zume also uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology to better understand and respond to customer demand, based on various factors including location and traffic patterns. And as well as being able to optimise its delivery route through technology that reduces fuel consumption, the company has also further enhanced its environmental credentials by recently purchasing Pivot, a plant-based alternative packaging company.

This sounds like a world away from my encounters with the decidedly zero-tech Pie & Peas van of all those years ago but is it really? The ultimate objectives of providing tasty food combined with convenience remain exactly the same but with the overlay of technology and the environmental focus bringing things right up to date.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.