Late-night impulse. Unhealthy last resort. Shady stepsibling of the restaurant world.
Food delivery used to be defined by metal-handled Chinese takeout containers and pizza boxes smothered in grease. And it wasn’t exactly fast, either.
“I remember a time when pizza delivery would take two hours,” says chef and pitmaster Andy Husbands of the Smoke Shop. “So when Domino’s first hit the scene, their deal was pizza in 30 minutes or less. People were like, ‘How’s that even possible?’ ”
But these days, customers are no longer shoving direct-mail menus into their junk drawers. Food delivery is now a $100 billion-plus market, thanks to a smorgasbord of apps such as Uber Eats, Caviar, DoorDash, Postmates, Seamless and Grubhub. The people have spoken, and they want convenience without compromise—or MSG.
Local spots are finding creative ways to cater to diners’ desires for instant gratification, diverse options and high-quality cuisine. Earlier this year, Inman Square mainstay Puritan & Company began a delivery-only spinoff, Puritan Trading Company, featuring dishes tailored for travel. Restaurateur Nick Frattaroli (responsible for Bodega Canal, North Square Oyster and Ward 8) factored a takeout menu into his forthcoming North End venture, Tony & Elaine’s, at the early planning stages. And at Little Donkey in Central Square, chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette are serving up haute cuisine-to-go in the form of beef tartare and caviar sandwiches.
“You can get pretty much any meal from any restaurant—duck à l’orange, sushi omakase, dry-aged rib-eye steak—delivered to your house in 30 minutes,” Oringer says. “If restaurants don’t do delivery right and don’t do it seriously, they’re really missing a huge part of the market.”
Not every menu item is immediately travel-friendly (we’re looking at you, mussels), so some chefs are using the platform as a test kitchen. Before developing his Puritan Trading Co. concept, chef/co-owner Will Gilson’s original plan was to design more portable dishes for his brick-and-mortar menu. He put out a call on social media asking followers about their most beloved takeout foods, and the cravings came streaming in from customers.
“We started drafting this master menu, and it was all over the place,” Gilson says. “So we said, ‘What if we just did it all but we created an entity that allowed for that?’”
Gilson had heard stories about “ghost restaurants” opening for delivery across the country. “Restaurants took warehouse space and created these online presences that nobody could ever go to,” Gilson says. A delivery-focused setup would especially help support his business during the Boston winter slump, when residents don’t want to venture outside of their blankets, let alone their doors. Gilson already had a working restaurant kitchen—why not open his own virtual spot?
Thus began Puritan Trading Co., Gilson’s ghost restaurant that operates out of Puritan & Co.’s kitchen, but doesn’t have its own storefront. To test the potential delivery-only menu, Gilson’s staff tasted variations and gave feedback. He sent out samples to guests sitting at the Puritan & Co. bar to get their reactions. And he added a dish that was already a popular back-of-house staff meal—street food-style udon noodles with chicken, cauliflower and shishito peppers—to the delivery lineup.
“I think an interesting Top Chef-type challenge [for our staff] is that we made all of the dishes for Puritan Trading Co. out of ingredients that we already had in-house,” Gilson says. “We’ve learned to only put things on that menu that we feel like we can do well. Every opening menu that I’ve ever had, in any concept, has always been wildly ambitious. I think that time minus ambition equals success.”
For restaurants that haven’t created a separate delivery-only clone, there’s still a lot of freedom and possibility that comes wrapped in a brown paper to-go bag.
“I think these services give the young, talented chef a chance to go do their own thing and not have to come up with a crazy amount of money to open up downtown,” Frattaroli says. “They’ll still be able to run a profitable business because of things like Caviar and Uber Eats.”
And, thanks to those delivery apps, there’s now a “ghost crowd” the industry is tapping into. In other words, since restaurants can only fill a certain number of seats each night, delivery expands the customer base.
“It’s revenue that doesn’t really include a lot of labor. We’re not washing those dishes, we’re not polishing silverware—everything just kind of goes out,” says Deena Marlette, general manager of Branch Line. “It’s a really viable way to grow a business.”
Watertown’s Branch Line conducted three months of menu alterations and tasty research before the restaurant was finally ready to debut on Caviar. They found that to-go orders were often placed by families, which prompted them to redevelop their children’s menu. “We also put a coloring page and crayons in the bags with kids’ food just to make it feel a little bit more special,” Marlette says. It’s a simple gesture, but those types of personal touches were previously overlooked in the anonymous realm of delivery. They bring the dining-out experience back home with the customers.
For plant-lover’s paradise Whole Heart Provisions, located in Allston and Central Square, delivery makes up about 15 percent of sales. Chef/co-owner Rebecca Arnold began offering the service right when the eatery’s first location opened three years ago, and considers the apps a form of advertising. When hungry Bostonians search for a meal that’s not nutrition’s archenemy, Whole Heart Provisions pops up as a top choice for healthy eats.
“We made the menu so that our food would travel very well. Everything holds up—I’ve had friends tell me that they eat half our food that day then save the other half for lunch the next day and it’s just as good or better, because it’s had time to really marinate in the sauce,” Arnold says.
Her pro tips for takeout include always getting the crunchy part of the dish on the side and forgoing light greens for heartier ones like kale, which will stay crisp for multiple days. Because Whole Heart Provisions perfected the art of soggy-free delivery early on, customers keep coming back—or at least keep pressing the ‘Order Now’ button.
There’s still one major societal concern with food delivery that needs to be addressed. It’s the Amazon Prime-sized elephant in the room. The “pretty soon, you won’t have to leave the house for anything” comment. Will people never have to get off of their couches when they need sustenance? Will our ability to chat with other humans over appetizers fade into obscurity?
The short answer appears to be no. For now, dining is still all about the experience. After this summer, in-restaurant sales were actually the highest, according to the Commerce Department.
“I don’t think that takeout or delivery is cannibalizing restaurant guests,” says chef Colin Lynch of Bar Mezzana in the South End. “People need personal interaction. We crave it.”
Plus, delivery might not make sense for every restaurant. Balancing an order for a table that’s dining in for an hour versus a delivery order that needs to be ready to go in 15 minutes can be a situation that unseasoned kitchens simply aren’t ready to handle. For a chef, delivery is also a fragile extension of his or her brand. It’s a simple equation: If a restaurant expands to delivery before it’s ready, the quality of both the in-house and takeout fare will suffer.
“I know a guy in Brooklyn who won’t let his ramen outside of those four walls because he’s worried the noodles will overcook and it won’t represent what he’s trying to do,” Husbands says. “So if I want that ramen, I have to get it there. I think that’s kind of neat.”
That same in-person rule applies for Bar Mezzana’s customers who want Lynch’s award-winning crudo. Lynch won’t offer the raw fish menu for delivery because he doesn’t trust the courier will keep it in a separate bag from hot items. Separation is also a key for Oringer’s crew. Customers ordering Little Donkey’s ramen receive the soup in a different container from the pasta and matzoh balls in order to keep it from looking unappetizing upon delivery. And even with all of the high-end kitchens, revamped plastic containers and can-do chef attitudes, there’s one type of quintessential cuisine that there might never be the proper takeout technology to transport: French fries.
However—even if scientists are unable to find a way to keep spuds on the go from getting soggy—the increased demand for meals on wheels doesn’t seem like it will slow down anytime soon. For enterprising restaurateurs willing to innovate, takeout could become their new bread-and-butter.
“I think most restaurants will have a delivery service within the next two years,” Marlette predicts. “You’re not stuck with bad options anymore. I mean I could get Little Donkey delivered.” ◆