The question asked most recently by readers is this: Why do we review cook-at-home box dinners when takeaways are still operating? The answer is simple and comes in two parts.
The first part is this: The pandemic has changed the way we live. Hospitality, more than many sectors, now operates entirely differently. Many businesses remain closed, a significant number will go to the wall, or already have done.
Those that remain have had to adapt to survive.
The habits of customers have also changed – though that process had started long before the pandemic: anyone got the number for UberEats, or Deliveroo?
We are no longer tied to sit-down dining, we’re now able to eat from the comfort of our own homes.
A similar drift happened with pubs, where more people drink at home, as well as entertainment, where the digital revolution democratised entertainment and meant people with a laptop might enjoy a show from their sofa, rather than a theatre or concert hall.
There’s another point to make on the importance of dine at home boxes: they are keeping restaurants afloat.
The top-ups required to pay wages and National Insurance contributions come from the meagre profits that operators make.
Crucially, such schemes also help the supply chain – the farmers who rear pork and beef, the growers who harvest spring vegetables, the fishermen who still need a market for their produce – having been stung so badly by Brexit.
So, for a variety of reasons, the rise of heat-at-home boxes has helped to keep the hospitality industry in business during its worst 12 months in living memory.
There’s another reason for focusing on heat-at-home in recent months and it’s this: some of it is really good.
If we fancy a stay-at-home burger night or a stunning dinner from a two Michelin-starred chef, we can order with the click of a mouse.
So if there’s a Friday night feast to be had or a special occasion dinner with a loved one, our options have increased.
But, ask the letters, why not focus more on takeaways?
The answer's crystallised in this week’s click-and-collect order from Spice Empire, in Cleobury Mortimer.
Before we get into the details, let’s be clear on two things. We all make mistakes. That’s a given. None of us sail through life without tripping over a kerbstone, collecting a parking ticket for encroaching on a double yellow or forgetting a significant birthday or anniversary. That’s life.
The other point is this: when we do make mistakes, the important thing is how we respond.
There’s a third point to add: we remain enmired in a pandemic – so making errors on a takeaway is just about the least important thing in the world right now, somewhere lower than remembering where you stored your GCSE certificates, accidentally telling your friend the ending of a film they haven’t seen or sending a text to the wrong person because you still can get to grips with technology. It. Doesn’t. Matter.
So. Spice Empire.
In deference to those who asked for a local takeaway review, we ordered a curry. It was Tuesday.
Spice Empire had a shiny new ordering system; though it turned out not to be so shiny.
An order was placed, a slot was booked, I turned up five minutes early, just in case. In fact, I should have turned up 20 minutes late, for the food was nowhere to be seen and instead, the business’s drivers were hurriedly going back and forth with takeaways for people who live a little closer than I.
The guys in the restaurant told me to sit down. I did. They told me the food was just being wrapped – though they said that three times. After the second time, I switched off. It clearly hadn’t been cooked.
Honesty is ever the best policy and if you’re running late tell the guy sitting in the window that you’re running late because you’ve got lots of orders; rather than insisting it will just be two minutes.
Five minutes after hitting the road with a box of food, the phone rang. It was Spice Empire. They’d forgotten to add in one of the dishes I’d ordered and paid for and would I mind turning round and going back to collect it?
Yes, I responded. I would mind, as that would be an extra 10 minutes of journey time and my already-cooling food would be stone cold. They asked where I lived. I told them. That’s way too far, they said. We settled on a refund. No biggie.
They were apologetic. Credit where credit is due.
They processed the refund, made an apology, took ownership of their poor service. Well done.
And the food? Well, it was fine.
A chicken paratha roll was fabulous; big on flavour and bite-sized. A chicken coconut chilli was cooked to the required hotness and had a great sauce, with overcooked chicken chunks. A chicken chasni had great flavours of mango while a king prawn sweet chilli was similarly impressive.
The lemon rice was sharp, a little too much so, like a paper cut, rather than a first taste of summer.
The balance of spices in the curries was impressive while the roti was a pleasingly, doughy texture. The poppadums, to start, were regulation, with a thin, almost-watery dip.
The spices were decent, the sauces pretty good, the protein overcooked. It was a triumph of sustenance over style.
While the curries were above average, the service – notwithstanding their desire to put things right and apologise – was below.
There’s a simple answer to those who ask about reviews of box meals and it’s this: You can order good quality, safely delivered, economically priced food to your door in a pandemic, or pay the same to drive to a takeaway for poor service and overcooked chicken?
Now, really, which would you prefer?