Delivery Services Go Gourmet

Barbacco in San Francisco offers its grilled shrimp and squid sandwich for delivery in high-end packaging that complements the dine-in experience.
Barbacco in San Francisco offers its grilled shrimp and squid sandwich for delivery in high-end packaging that complements the dine-in experience. Barbacco

Gourmet restaurants are going a step further to cater to customers—by giving them the option to dine at home.

On the heels of GrubHub and Seamless, new delivery services are focusing on the high-end market, targeting their efforts on transporting gourmet food to the homebody. The venture comes with challenges, however: It is essential that the packaging retain the freshness and quality of the chef-driven contents, while on the other side, restaurateurs must balance another form of business without slowing the experience for dine-in patrons.

Two services ramping up their gourmet delivery programs are Caviar and Restaurants on the Run. They help diners overcome adverse weather, long waits, and impossible-to-attain reservations by bringing meals directly from the five-star kitchens to the comfort of diners’ own homes, or wherever they choose.

Founded in 2012 and now in eight U.S. cities, Caviar offers delivery services for premium restaurants, which must pass their extensive taste tests. The service uses real-time GPS tracking to let diners monitor the status of meal couriers as they deliver food. All orders are charged a flat $4.99 fee for delivery as well as an 18 percent gratuity.

“We leverage our technology to help restaurants know when to begin preparing the meal and when the courier will arrive to pick it up, which keeps the food as fresh as it would be in the restaurant,” Caviar CEO Jason Wang says.

When New Yorkers, for example, desire fresh Tagliatelle from Chef Michael White’s Italian eatery Osteria Morini, they can place an order on Caviar’s website and the restaurant will time its cooking process to coincide with when a courier arrives at the restaurant.

Osteria Morini general manager Phillip Buttacavoli says the only real challenge with the delivery process is finding space in the container. “We do our best to keep plating the same,” Buttacavoli says. “Some dishes have very large round or oval plates, but our to-go containers are rectangular.”

Another complication with plating compared to the restaurant is when a dish includes components of different temperatures, such as a hot entrée with a cold salad or sauce. Caviar delivers these items in separate containers to maintain the quality of both dishes.

According to Wang, preserving the food quality is not simply about the containers in which foods are stored; it also includes making sure the person delivering the food follows proper protocol.

“The communication between the restaurant and courier is important to ensure that the delivery goes straight from the oven into our temperature-controlled bags,” Wang says. “We provide the courier and the restaurant with software that manages this on the back end so they can focus on their service. Our couriers inspect deliveries to ensure that each item is accounted for and well-secured.”

At Barbacco, an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, the biggest challenge in offering delivery is executing orders without affecting timeliness and service to in-house guests. Both in-house and delivery orders require attention, and the eatery has learned to balance each.

“You can only serve so many guests in the restaurant,” Barbacco co-owner Umberto Gibin says. “Caviar courted us for a long time before it became as big as it is now. I checked its reputation and appreciated that Caviar caters to more upscale businesses before I decided to partner with them.”

To best recreate the experience in a home setting, the restaurant uses high-end, disposable take-out packaging that is both functional and elegant looking. Diners are charged an extra $1.50 for the take-out vessels and cutlery.

Covering both gourmet and fast-casual restaurant delivery is Restaurants on the Run, a national corporate food delivery service. The business works with restaurants to establish prep-time standards to ensure food is delivered at its best. Special insulated containers and bags keep food appropriately hot or cold.

According to Mike Turner, director of marketing at Restaurants on the Run, Chinese, Italian, and Mexican foods have been shown to travel best. Dishes that are deconstructed for transportation and then reconstructed by the user also do well in the delivery process.

For the consumer, there may be downsides: If the take-out isn’t delivered at a desirable temperature, it’s up to the customer to reheat the food, either in a microwave or in a pan with olive oil, stock, or water. In the end, it can be difficult to satisfy all parties involved.

“Restaurants want limited choice in their category in order to maximize sales; however, that is at the expense of the customer who craves variety,” Turner says. “Drivers want large orders with short travel distances so they can maximize the orders they do in a shift.”

Momofuku Restaurant Group founder David Chang hopes to solve many of these problems with his upcoming delivery service, Maple. The start-up—which will deliver food made from its own receipes, rather than restaurant dishes—is set to open this year and will have an ordering app. Chang’s goal is to get food to the diner in just 15 minutes.

In the end, though, there will still always be some dishes worth making a reservation and getting dressed up for.

There are inevitably some plates that don’t travel well,” says Caviar’s Wang. “Raw oysters, for instance, are not something you’d want to order for delivery.”

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