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How the best restaurants are going places with delivery tech

An appetite for restaurant-quality food at home has helped delivery company Deliveroo expand business for itself and the restaurants it serves.

This is part of CNET's "Dining Redefined" series about how technology is changing the way you eat.

We've all been there: It's Friday night and you want to veg on the sofa with takeout -- but not with the greasy pizza you get from your local joint.

What you actually want is dinner at your favorite restaurant, but without the hassle of leaving your house, fighting for reservations, finding parking and generally everything short of the actual meal.

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It's a problem that UK-based food delivery company Deliveroo -- a popular rival to UberEats across Europe, Australia and some parts of Asia -- is helping to tackle through a high-end alternative to takeout services like Just Eat and Seamless.

Starting earlier this year, the company set up collections of "dark kitchens" called Deliveroo Editions across parts of London and Brighton, a seaside town two hours south of the capital. These kitchens, of which there are seven so far, allow fine-dining restaurants to extend the delivery range beyond the radius of their existing outlets, without having to provide any space to sit and eat or any wait staff.

With companies like UberEats and Amazon fighting to deliver your food, Deliveroo's experiment marks an attempt to stand out from the crowd -- and potentially build stronger relationships with top local restaurants. The move may expand your local menu while getting more restaurants to sign on to the Deliveroo bandwagon.

Peter Backman, a food services consultant, said it is "quite an intelligent solution" and "particularly appealing to operators that don't have the natural resources [to grow]."

Deliveroo invites restaurants in, rent free, and allows them to fit out spaces with their own kitchen facilities and chefs. The dark kitchens are vivid teal-painted shipping containers that Deliveroo has planted at empty sites around London. For restaurants taking up residence in these containers, a new base of customers opens up.

Of course, there's also the delivery aspect of Deliveroo. The company fires off alerts to riders on mopeds or bikes based on how long an order will take. They show up to collect orders directly from the chefs and ship them out to the mainly suburban surrounding areas.

Chowing down and moving on up

At the Deliveroo Editions in Camberwell, London, I met Joe Moore, who runs Crust Bros, which until Deliveroo signed it up 18 months ago was just a street food stall. Moving between different markets and street food events in London, Moore sold pizzas he had learned to make by hanging out in the pizzeria kitchens of Rome and Naples.

I popped into his shipping container, where two chefs were preparing mozzarella for the shift ahead. As they showed me the Asus tablet attached to the wall where the evening orders would soon start to trickle in, I felt the blast of heat from the Crust Bros giant Pavesi pizza oven, imported from Italy. To me, the container seemed overwhelmingly hot and claustrophobic, but Moore assured me that having this much space to cook in was a luxury.

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Joe Moore has expanded his street food business by being involved in Editions.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"This was a major step up for us," he said. "We're used to trading from a three-meter gazebo."

For Moore, being part of Editions has been essential in allowing him to expand his street food business into the first brick-and-mortar restaurant by London's Waterloo Station, which opened in August.

Editions allowed him to test his menu and build a customer base. The success of the project also convinced the landlord of the space he will take over to choose Moore over an established chain.

"We can say we sell this many pizzas, rather than just going in and saying we're a street food company, which is nice and romantic, but it's not necessarily a business that is viable for them," said Moore.

Poking around the other four shipping containers, it struck me what varied company the former street-food stall is in. Just across is a branch of cheap-and-cheerful national chain Gourmet Burger Kitchen, as well as Motu, a delivery-only, high-end Indian restaurant from the company that owns Michelin star-decorated Gymkhana and sister outlets Trishna and Hoppers.

Hungry for more

Success for restaurants aside, it's not all been smooth sailing in the UK for Deliveroo, which, like Uber, faces criticism that it is exploiting gig economy workers by not ensuring its delivery drivers and riders earn national minimum wage. The company maintains that hundreds of riders earn on average well above the living wage. Just this month, the Camberwell Edition I visited was hit with a threat of closure due to not having the correct planning permission.

"We have been talking with local residents to put in place measures to deal with any concerns," the company said in a statement. "Where there are issues with planning permission, we will work closely with relevant local authorities to ensure they are resolved."

The added delivery service could also hurt the distinctive on-premise experience, which is often what makes certain restaurants so special, Backman said. For those eating in their restaurants it's "not only food, it's also what does it feel like," he added. "But when you eat at home your relationship is purely then a man on a bike with a bag."

Motu is addressing this by providing specially crafted delivery boxes for food to arrive in. Similarly, Wagamama provides ramen in plastic imitations of more sophisticated bowls. While this doesn't totally replicate the in-house experience, it does go some way to helping each of the brands feel unique.

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Not your average Indian takeaway: Motu has special delivery boxes for its food.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

These concerns aren't weighing Deliveroo down, and the company is full speed ahead on expansion.

In late September, Deliveroo announced an extra $385 million (£284m) in funding, which it will use to rapidly grow Editions across the UK and abroad. A major part of this will involve investing in tech and improving the system's artificial intelligence and machine learning, used to anticipate the number of orders at any given time or provide feedback to restaurants on pricing and menu options.

The investment in tech will also filter down into the kitchens themselves. Deliveroo said in a press release that it's "utilizing the latest advances in robotics and industrial control systems to help restaurant chefs focus on high-skill activities that increase the quality of food at lower cost."

Just adding delivery capabilities is huge. The logistics of folding this into an existing restaurant business are far more complex than handling bookings. When a company like Deliveroo shows up offering not only the technological infrastructure, but drivers and kitchen space to expand into delivery and grow the brand, it's easy to see why a restaurant would jump in.

"This delivery thing seems like win-win for restaurants," said Adam Coghlan, UK editor of Eater, an online publication.

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