Pizza wasn’t cutting it anymore. Brandon Pryatel wanted more options for delivery than Domino’s or Papa John’s at the end of a long workday.
Now, thanks to new delivery services and advancing technology, Pryatel and others can choose from nearly 100 Twin Cities restaurants of wide-ranging ethnic cuisine, from the Ginger Hop, the Birchwood Cafe, Brit’s Pub, Tiger Sushi, the Lotus or Gandhi Mahal.
“It’s nice being able to order things we actually want instead of just what’s available,” said the Minneapolis resident.
A nationwide boom in delivery services is allowing time-starved consumers to get a wider variety of restaurant food delivered quicker and fresher. Just in the past 18 months, Bite Squad, Doorstep Delivery and GrubHub have started service in the Twin Cities.
Customer demand for a variety of convenient, quality food delivered is feeding the trend, said Dustin Hansen of Restaurant Connection, which started in the Twin Cities in 2009. “Every major city in the country now has a delivery service,” he said.
Having high-quality food delivered isn’t a new idea, but new software and tighter organization have dramatically improved it, said Dan McElroy, president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association. “It’s a game changer,” he said.
Technology is engaging the customer and making delivery interactive, said Kian Salehi, owner of Minneapolis-based Bite Squad. “From the time a customer places the order,” he said, “they can follow it on a tracking system from the driver to house, and interact with the driver by getting a text when the delivery is one-tenth of a mile from their house.”
Customer service is ramping up too. Some sites picture nearly every menu item on their websites. Pulldown menus and boxes let customers choose levels of spiciness, flavors and doneness. When customers have questions, they can initiate a live online chat.
The customer is updated on the order’s progress on the website or via e-mails and texts from the delivery service, which calculates prep and delivery time in tandem with the restaurant. Within seconds, a precise arrival time is determined — 7:11 p.m., for example, not “sometime between 7 and 7:30.”
Bite Squad uses an algorithm that measures cooking time, number of orders, available drivers and traffic flow. If the delivery will be delayed five minutes or longer, the customer gets a phone call and an apology, but Salehi said more than 90 percent of deliveries are on time with no need for a phone call.
To distinguish itself from other delivery services, Bite Squad also offers branded Priuses, uniformed delivery drivers, and Styrofoam-free containers. Its customers can now track the driver on a map from the restaurant to their home, along with a picture of the driver’s face and the number of minutes to delivery.
GrubHub customers can place their orders by smartphone app, website or good old land line. Restaurant Connection offers fewer restaurant choices (about 40 in the Twin Cities), and customers receive text message updates on the status of their orders. Customers who prefer a more traditional interaction can still obtain a printed menu booklet and call in their order.
Food prices are usually identical to the restaurants’ menu prices. Delivery prices vary from $4 to $8, depending on the distance from the restaurant to the home or business.
Salehi said some people don’t like the delivery fee, but it evens out when they factor in gas and parking, especially at downtown and Uptown restaurants. Payment, including tip, is usually done online via credit card or PayPal.
Protecting the name
When Parasole restaurants, including Chino Latino and Mozza Mia, hired its first delivery service five months ago, vice president Kip Clayton said, “It’s like giving your baby to someone else and hoping for the best.”
Parasole’s experiment has far exceeded expectations to date.
Customers like it, and the revenue boost surprised the Edina-based company. “I’ve been blown away by the numbers,” Clayton said. “It’s incremental revenue at $10,000 to $20,000 per month, but $200,000 a year is a big deal,” he said.
Parasole is considering adding one or two more restaurants such as Salut to Bite Squad’s delivery program.
Salehi said a consistently good customer experience is essential. “We never compromise a restaurant’s brand that they’ve spent years developing,” he said. “I know how difficult it is get people to come back after a bad experience.”
Clayton is the most excited about customers using smartphones to place their delivery orders.
“Millennials would rather text than talk to you. This service is built for people of that generation,” he said. “They can watch the car graphically deliver their order. It’s an element of audience participation.”
So far customers are satisfied with the most important thing — hot foods arriving hot and cold foods staying cold. But delivery services and restaurants know that not all foods can survive a 20 minute car ride.
Restaurants can easily take those items off the delivery menu. Vincent restaurant on Nicollet Mall couldn’t find a special container to transport its cassoulet or escargot, so neither item is on Bite Squad’s menu for the French restaurant, said its general manger Kris Mertz.
“We’re not known as a delivery business,” he said. “But we want to provide our food for people who don’t feel like getting out.”
Delivery companies try to ensure quality by not delivering too far from a restaurant. Three of four Twin Cities services currently deliver to first- or second-ring suburbs, but outlying suburbs and restaurants are shut out for now.
Delivery zones are mostly in areas with a high concentration of restaurants such as Minneapolis and St. Paul because the business model can’t be profitable unless a zone has at least five to 10 participating restaurants.
“Our drivers need to be in a defined area where they drop off one order and quickly pick up another in the same area,” said Salehi.
Delivery services charge restaurants between 25 and 30 percent per order for their service, but there is no upfront cost or even a contract in some cases.
Kevin Sheehy, owner of Cafe Maude in Minneapolis, said he likes not having to sign a contract. He had never offered delivery until about a month ago, after hiring Bite Squad.
Although most of the deliveries are to existing customers, Sheehy said it’s still additional revenue. And he doesn’t have to provide a table, hire a driver, or insure a vehicle.
Still, there are limits to how far the concept can be expanded. McElroy thinks the potential is dependent on urban density.
The model doesn’t work if it’s 15 to 20 miles from the restaurant to the customer. And the food won’t be hot either, he said.
“It works great if you’re in Richfield or Crystal, but if you live in Ramsey or St. Paul Park, there aren’t enough restaurants nearby to support the trend.”