he first meal I delivered was a single lobster bisque to a penthouse overlooking St Katherine Docks. A cufflinked wrist thrust out from behind a door to retrieve it. My bike was lit by moonlight, the boats swayed in the harbour, and despite not seeing his face, I had the fleeting thought that this could be the most romantic job of my life.
I’ve been a Deliveroo rider for a few months – I started in the summer when the riders had just been on strike. Management were trialling pay per delivery rather than the hourly pay, and without guaranteed income it would leave workers earning under the minimum wage. The company abandoned the plans a few days later. I was surprised so few riders were talking about it, though they did tell me to make sure I got the hourly contract, to be on my guard and make a note of my hours.
Everyone’s always got time for a little chat at the lights
The relative flexibility works for me as I’m studying, and working as an artist and illustrator. Nearly everybody is doing something else. Fellow riders are students, actors, architects, coders, cleaners.
A friend of mine got me into it. He nodded at my bike and said: “Not put it to work yet?” I realised he had a point. Now I make around eight deliveries a night, cycling about 15 miles. There’s camaraderie on the roads and everyone’s always got time for a little chat at the lights. Unlike all the other cyclists who are always in a rush, we take it a little easier.
The lunchtime shift is mostly to city workers. Lite bites, Itsu salad boxes in the early part of the week, burgers on Fridays. One guy wanted a boxful of fizzy water, which was easier to transport than soup: that sometimes feels like walking with books on your head – a workout and a balancing act. Once, in the early days, I forgot the food on the bike, caught the lift up to the 24th floor and emerged like a confused but highly reflective kissogram.
Sometimes you’re visiting the same restaurant all night. Each delivery is a new take, a Steadicam pan round waiters bearing buttery, bubbling naan bread, a limbo under a dish of sizzling kebab skewers and a final close-up to the gangster heart of the take-away counter, a kaleidoscope of chutney. The doorman of the Japanese restaurant is also a boxer and does security for the strip bar over the road. He has a stash of clips of his fights on his phone to share while we’re waiting for the tempura to sputter out of the kitchen.
Inside all the world’s richest companies, I’ve found, there’s a special area in the atrium for deliveries. There, on a table full of little brown bags, we deposit lunches with the recipient’s name on the side. “I worry about the food going cold,” I tell the security guard. “Sometimes they never even turn up,” he replies.
There’s a network of underground kitchens to pick up from, hidden from diners’ sensitivities. Often you’re kept out of sight of the deliverees, too. Modern millionaires’ apartments have goods lifts and exclusive doorbells for delivery people, the upstairs/downstairs culture still built into the fabric of state-of-the-art dwellings. The gig economy’s own poor door.
Sunday nights are the best time to work, when hearts are open, mouths are watering, people are vulnerable, grateful, generous. And hungover. Curries and Thais are delivered to laughing houses, food for sharing with loved ones, but no one ever orders a romantic box of sausage and mash for two… Those dishes are delivered in the dark. I pass over the bag and scurry down the back steps. Posh school dinner food, not much chewing needed – it’s a private pleasure. But any food delivered to the door brings such a joy that I was shocked to learn how satisfying the job is. Sometimes after a good shift, you have an adrenaline high.
On my way home, I dream about which dish I’m going to scoff. A Greek place a few miles back did halloumi wraps and chips so enticing that a customer offered me some of his. Or maybe I’d have an aromatic Vietnamese pho teeming with treats so you can’t see the bottom of the container… Sometimes I feel like it’s a “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” kind of night. A Breton stew of sea bass, mussels, clams, prawns and squid with tomato, white wine and chilli served with, who knows, a freshly baked sourdough baguette. And frites, why not? I mentally click “add to basket” as I pedal.
Except these meals remain dreams. Everywhere’s closed by the time I’m finished. So I come home and demolish a cauldron of pasta, contented we’ve all been fed.