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Filler App: How Tech Companies Are Disrupting Restaurant Delivery 

Wednesday, Feb 26 2014
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Like most busy San Franciscans, I eat a lot of takeout, and also complain heartily about the lack of delivery options in the city. (Along with taxis and late-night dining, takeout is an area where New York has us handily beat.) Popular New York apps like Seamless and GrubHub aren't very useful here — their restaurant selection isn't very good, and the delivery time and food consistency can very wildly. Last year, Eat24 partnered with Yelp to offer delivery and takeout directly through the review site, but its options are limited to restaurants that already deliver. S.F. does have a few great options if you live in the center of the city: Mission Chinese, Lers Ros, Little Star, Wing Wings. They're not enough.

But this is San Francisco in the Great Age of Disruption, and of course a number of new companies are trying to improve upon the delivery experience. Some are basically courier services, fetching food from any restaurant you're craving at the moment. Others eliminate the middleman and employ chefs to create healthy meals that you order through your phone. It's still early days, but perhaps in a few years that call to your local Chinese restaurant will be a thing of the past.

Of the courier-type services, Postmates (postmates.com) seems the most useful. The iOS/Android app has thousands of local restaurant menus loaded in; it's fairly painless to find the restaurant and make your order. I tried it out on a rainy Saturday when I felt like eating San Tung chicken wings but didn't feel like leaving the couch. After nailing down the order, a screen popped up alerting me to 1.5x "blitz pricing," bumping the delivery fee from $10 to $15. I accepted, and within a few minutes a friendly looking girl named Jennifer (five stars, 22 deliveries) had accepted my order.

After about 10 minutes, I got a text from someone at Postmates checking if the 50-minute wait at San Tung was okay. I said it was, Jennifer picked up the food on time, and I tracked her drive from the Sunset to the Haight in an interface that looked much like Uber or Lyft's. The handoff was uneventful. The chicken wings and soup were warm, the potstickers were cold and soggy, though that was more San Tung's packaging than Postmates' fault. Delivery fee, tip, and service fees added an extra $27.75, making a fairly cheap order not so cheap. But I had skipped the madness at San Tung, and if I had a larger group the fees wouldn't matter so much.

The counterpoint to Postmates is Caviar (trycaviar.com), a website that started in San Francisco and has since expanded to Seattle and Manhattan. The web interface has fewer restaurants than Postmates, but every menu item is professionally photographed, making it a much better browsing experience. Delivery is a flat fee of $10 and there's no surge pricing, but choice is limited. Co-founder and CEO Jason Wang told me that the company's goal is to "work with the best restaurants," but the list is a little sparse — there are hot restaurants like Brenda's, Wise Sons, and Shanghai Dumpling House, but also more random-seeming places like Frjtz, Pacific Catch, and Freshroll.

Brenda's wasn't available on the weekend, so I ordered pizza and lasagna from Tommaso's in North Beach. My delivery window was 5:30-6:30 p.m., and by 6 I could tell by the site's tracking that my order hadn't even been picked up. Finally, the little car on the map started moving, and I got a call from the company apologizing for the late pickup — the Chinese New Year's parade had screwed up traffic. Despite the driver's insulated bag, the food was lukewarm when it arrived at 6:22. It wasn't necessarily the company's fault, but the hiccup did call attention to the fact that asking your fellow citizens to fetch food for you is a gamble, just like asking them to drive you around through UberX and Lyft. They're trying their best, but in the end it felt a little like I'd been delivered a doggy bag.


Expanding the universe of restaurants you can order from is one way to make delivery better. But the more interesting model — and the one I can see becoming the new standard — is one where the restaurant and the delivery service are the same. Companies like Sprig, SpoonRocket, and Munchery are hiring chefs to prepare food in commercial kitchens, then deliver it to you in a specific time window.

After a lifetime of eating delivery, I thought Sprig (eatsprig.com) was the most revolutionary. The start-up's easy iOS interface offers three rotating meals a day prepared by Nate Keller, formerly head chef at Google's cafeteria. I ordered chicken agridolce with brown rice and spicy broccoli, and French onion shredded beef with carrots and green beans (there was a vegetarian option, a quiche, but it looked a little lackluster in the photo). Every dish is $10, with a $2 delivery fee. The hot food was at my door within 12 minutes of ordering. It was basically magic.

The dinners themselves reminded me of the meals that my mom used to make — a protein, a side, a vegetable, all wholesome and mostly healthy. The beef was tender and had a bit of melted cheese on top; the carrots and green peppers were perfectly cooked and nicely seasoned. While the cherry/fig sauce on the chicken was too sweet, the sliced breast itself was soft and juicy (Keller uses a lot of sous vide), and the broccoli and brown rice/black eyed peas on the side weren't inspired but were healthy. It was quick, easy, and satisfying. I will almost certainly be ordering from Sprig again, and probably also from the similar SpoonRocket (spoonrocket.com), an East Bay-based service that's currently testing delivery in SoMa and plans to expand into more of the city soon.

Sprig worked because it offered food a little better than I could make myself, in a fraction of the time (and probably close to the cost). I couldn't say the same for Munchery (munchery.com), a company that's been around since 2010 but has taken off recently — co-founder Tri Tran told me that the company fills about 4,500 orders a day and claims double-digit month-over-month growth. Munchery calls on seven staff and around 35 part-time chefs to make a wide variety of main dishes, sides, kids meals, and desserts that you order on the website or the iOS app at least two hours and up to two days ahead of time. The cost is comparable to Sprig (around $10-$12 per entree, $2.95-$4.95 per delivery for most of the Bay Area), and it offers a far wider selection and delivery range. The tradeoff is that the items are made earlier that day and delivered chilled. You have to heat them up yourself.

This wouldn't be a big deal if you had a microwave and could heat up items right in their eco-friendly packaging, but my apartment doesn't, so I had to dirty a few pans — not a huge amount of work, but part of the allure of takeout is that there are no dishes at all. I turned on the oven when the delivery person, Robert, texted me at 6:50 to say that he'd be there in 10 minutes (and he was, impressive considering my delivery window was 7-8 p.m.). But after I got the food it still took a good 20 minutes before everything was ready, longer than the entire Sprig process had taken.

And once I'd warmed it up, the food was just okay. The curry udon soup with chicken had some spice but mostly tasted like salt, like a gourmet take on Top Ramen. A side of ratatouille made by staff chef Raymond Reyes (formerly of Michael Mina and Gather) was a disaster, more like diced, chewy vegetables than a delicious melding of them. The chicken meatballs with fontina were good-sized and well-seasoned, and the angel hair spaghetti underneath held up surprisingly well in the oven, but the vodka sauce atop all of it was a bit too sweet, and the vegetables on the side were bland and hard. Overall, it felt like I was eating leftovers of a not-so-great meal I'd made myself.

But then, I can cook (when I feel like it), so while this pan-dirtying and reheating felt silly to me, I could see the appeal: It's the illusion of cooking with almost none of the work. CEO Tran started Munchery because he and his partner had busy careers, no time to shop and cook dinner, and were looking for good options for takeout every night. With the new influx of tech workers in the city, companies delivering fast, healthy dinners like these will no doubt thrive — and there are always couriers for indulgent nights. What a world.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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